ago, artist Hisashi Otsuka came from Japan to Hawaii seeking opportunities for
artistic freedom denied him by Japanese tradition. He brought not only his
aesthetic sensitivity and talent but also new, exciting forms of Japanese art
that appeal to Western minds and emotions and that unite elements of both
cultures in ways that enhance each.
Otsuka (pronounced with the accent on the "0") was born thirty-six years ago, in Tokyo, into an exceptionally creative family. His natural artistic talents were encouraged and eventually developed formally in apprenticeship to one of Japan's foremost designers of kimonos, Taeko Jo. When Otsuka first came to Jo, he did little more than clean brushes and cook for the staff. The Bushido code, which specifies training in all the arts and sciences, even for the Samurai, determines that the technique of the art form is taught only after the student has learned service, duty and discipline. It was three years before Otsuka could cut a piece of cloth or paint a single stroke, but he learned patience and dedication essential to his art. Otsuka remained with Jo for eight years. When he left, the master paid his pupil the supreme compliment: Jo bought one of Otsuka's works.
In addition to rigorous self-discipline and dedication, Bushido training also encourages fierce independence and aesthetic sensitivity. For Otsuka these last two requirements clashed with the most basic tenants of Japanese aesthetics, that contemporary arts seek the perfection of traditional forms, that they retrace the inspirations of the old masters and not embellish classical accomplishments. Enormous social and spiritual pressures compel today's Japanese artist to conform to the designs, styles and colors of the past. Otsuka found this pressure stifling. His own aesthetic, more inventive, sought to design new compositions, in larger works, with brighter colors. Inevitably his work communicated the vitality, the dynamic excitement, of his own soul.
Otsuka brought to the West all the gifts Japan and its culture can bestow on an artist, in return, the West gave him the opportunity to express himself freely and rewarded his expression by its "grateful acceptance" of his work, as witnessed by the large and growing number of his collectors. The Western world has good reason to be grateful. Except to those few who have a special affinity for Japanese cultural values, or who have trained themselves to appreciate them, the understated colors and static forms of Japanese art have always seemed remote and unexciting to western collectors. The West has traditionally required, for excellence in art of whatever form, some element of uniqueness, of individuality and originality. The art which excites us most is art that unsettles us, that, by a new approach, a different perspective, an unusual arrangement of forms or ideas or symbols, a bold expressive use of color, startles us into some new perception or insight. Otsuka does this. Most westerners know the traditional designs, colors, styles, and forms of classic ukiyo-e. Few are moved by them. In Otsuka we find them in large compositions with unusual kimono designs, flowing hair, bright colors, movement and grace. These appeal to us. And as we enjoy Otsuka's individual and unique paintings for themselves, they move us gradually and inevitably to a greater appreciation and understanding of the older forms and cultural values of Japan
Our sense, in Otsuka's paintings, of the personal tensions of the artist who is breaking from the traditions of his origin, adds to our fascination with them and to their power over us. His first neo art deco pieces. The Kiss and Allure, are unusual combinations of abstraction and negative space, of decorative and presentational elements in a completely new pattern. These could never have been created had Otsuka remained in Japan. The spiritual pressure to conform to traditional values would have been too great. Probably they could not have been created without Otsuka's seven years of growth and increasing artistic freedom in the West.
Otsuka's newest contemporary art deco works are turning—or returning—to Oriental themes and exploring modern concerns. East Meets West and Harmony comment explicitly on the significance to the modern Oriental woman of the traditions and values of the past. They suggest that Hisashi Otsuka, having burst through his own aesthetic frontier and claimed his own artistic freedom in The Kiss and Allure, is now no longer threatened by the conventions of his past and his classical training. Now he can acknowledge them and, like Lady Mieko, celebrate their significance: the artist he is today could not exist without the values and traditions of his past. These new works seem to be Otsuka's attempt to forge a new artistic reality, one that insists on the value of the past even while it focuses more precisely on contemporary realities, one that applauds the freedom possible in the West even while it seeks more carefully to balance Western and Eastern themes and points of view.As always, with Hisashi Otsuka, how he will develop this new form, where it will take him—and us—is still to be determined. And as always, we can look forward to an exciting journey.
By Larry LeDoux
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