Visual Arts

Showa Okamura: Intersection of Kami and Ki

The artist, Showa Okamura, displays lush, vibrant, mystical work in his latest exhibit at Montserrat Contemporary Arts, entitled, “Seeds,” where he examines the divine mystery of the universe from which all life is created. He is a channeller of Kami and Ki—divine spirit and universal life force—through his paintings of essences. Born of the calligraphic brushwork tradition of Japanese art, he combines the iconography of Christian, Buddhist and Shinto traditions in his amalgam of imagery.

Okamura, in his artist’s statement says, “I am attracted to the existence of seeds that cultivate the lives of fruits and vegetables…While staring hard at a strawberry, a cabbage, or an apple, I continue to perk up my ears at the murmuring of the seeds of life spread out in the universe…I am delighted beyond words to be able to present my works, born out of dialogues with such seedbearing things, and to the contemporary art lovers of New York.” His work can be seen at Montserrat from June 3rd through 20th where his natural images of seeds of fruits and trees become symbols of divine creation.

Divine creation is primary in his painting, “The Seed de Apple” unifying human anatomical parts of all seeing eyes and the female sexual organs with Eve’s mythological, primordial apple. His apple is a depiction of divine knowledge which contains both light and dark emanations, a symbol of good and evil. This is underscored by his superimposition of the light colored fruit on a black background. Could it be that Okamura is commenting on the overwhelming life force as being totally beyond human sensibility and also saying that this supernatural force can be the embodiment of peace?

In “The Venus de Melon,” the fruit’s ripe fecundity transforms into an earth mother symbol of Eros and female creative, sexual energy. The painter draws attention to the figure’s pubic area by repeating the color and pattern of the melon’s skin as if, just as the melon rind holds the delicious fruit within, this Venus promises the delightful energies of love. Hands reach out in a mandala around the figure, as if they were mudras of divine protection and knowledge, spreading throughout the universe. Clearly, this fruit holds the mysterious procreative power of the female element of the life force in which the major compositional anchor of the painting is the circular melon form where the artist may also be alluding to divine unity and wholeness.

Okamura also depicts the feminine element in the painting, “The Madonna de Strawberry.” A strawberry can be an image of love and in this case, that love is divine. The inside of the fruit radiates out from the central figures of Madonna and Child in a protective red womb. The strawberry’s leaves almost configure a lotus where the mother and child rise out primordially from a green leafy base. The outer layer of the strawberry becomes detailed with all seeing eyes, perhaps the eyes of God, and the Madonna’s dark hair is sanctified by a simple linear halo, contrasting with the line work in the mandala. In this seed of love, we find an Earth Mother who becomes almost a Bosatsu with her protective hands cradling her precious divine child. The miracle of the passing of the seasons is portrayed in the painting, “The Leaf de Four Seasons” where change comes from an astronomical, divine force. The cosmic passage of time based on the earth’s rotation and revolution around the life giving sun is a force beyond human understanding. How did it all happen?—one may ask. The answer is deep within the mystery of creation beyond our reach.

Okamura’s linework in this painting is detailed, delicate and subdued in the drawing of the maple leaf’s veins. The leaf floats in the canvas space with seasonal colors on a mottled, atmospheric ground. The artist splashes pale color on the form to make the leaf’s surface almost palpable and he allows another pale leaf to grow from the stem, signifying the subtle immutability of seasonal change.

His three paintings, “The Cabbage Man,” “The Piment de Wrath,” and “Eye de Tree,” to me, all pay homage to Kami. Traditionally, Shintoism is nature worship where humans give thanks to the spirits for an auspicious relationship. Okamura brings Kami to consciousness by imbuing the natural forms in these works with human sensibilities.

The human characteristic of fear rises from the ghostly form emerging from the textured core of the cabbage in “The Cabbage Man.” This man is here to surprise and shock, His expression bears some resemblance to the faces of Jômon figures. All the energy of the painting coalesces in the form’s eyes, mouth and upward jutting arms. In western art, this figure reminds me of the terrified subject in Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” The painting’s blacks, purples, pinks and blues burst forth from around the figure in vigorous but disciplined brushstrokes, emphasizing raw, primal power. It is a spirit to respect for it can bring destruction.

“The Piment de Wrath” turns a fiery red pepper into a menacing depiction of an enraged face, reminiscent of demonic Japanese masks. The pepper seeds are transformed into a snarling countenance with bulging eyes and a mouth of large, piercing white teeth where the form seems to be saying, “beware of my tremendous, overwhelming power, for I too can be a destroying god.”

“The Eye de Tree” is much more tranquil than these two other pieces with subtle coloration and detailed linework representative of the gnarled, splintery surface of the tree bark. Spirit is infused into the surface where Okamura brings forth a face from the bark’s natural lines. The painting is primarily monochromatic except for the startling elements of a blue eye in one of the tree knots along with an elliptical knot intimating a mouth registering surprise. The preponderance of the strong right eye makes me think of the Shinto myth where the moon god was born from the right eye of the Kami Izanagi. Perhaps here too, the artist alludes to cosmic creativity.

In both “The Eye de Tree” and “The Cabbage Man”, I am reminded of Hokusai’s monk, Mongaku beneath the Nachi Waterfall, atoning for his sins. In Hokusai’s woodblock, the monk’s face seems to grow out of the falling water, just as in these two paintings, the faces grow from the natural vegetal forms.

In all these paintings, Okamura’s sense of space is flattened, with compositions drawn on vertical axes down the centers of the paintings. Having a history of strong portrayals of hands in his artwork, the imagery of the hand again plays a primary role in these pieces. Here, hands are raised almost in supplication and are also used as symbols of protection and caring. These compositional elements bring transcendence to the work, as in the energy of paintings by Christian mystics or in the meanings of hand positions in Buddhism. The artist is not constrained by the canvases’ physical boundaries as the works cross spatially into the divine, creative realms of various spiritual disciplines, going beyond human gender into timelessness, all growing from nature’s tiny, inscrutable seeds.