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MASAKATSU KONDO Landscape Paintings

MASAKATSU KONDO Landscape Paintings 1997 – 2001
Turnpike Gallery / Leigh Greater Manchester
05.May – 30.Jun. 2001

Catalog essay by Michael Wilson / Masakatsu Kondo

Masakatsu Kondo makes paintings which exist in a hinterland between the natural and the artificial, the representational and the abstract, the broadly traditional and the utterly contemporary. Looking at them, we feel ourselves drawn into a kind of purgatory in which expectations are established only to go unfulfilled. His works operate within a long-established set of preordained limits but remain unsettled and unsettling nonetheless. The world which they depict, while recognisably an interpretation of our own, is subtly but demonstrably out of step with observable reality. These pictures are not photoreal but hyperreal, the products of a highly selective process of editing and amplification aimed at jolting us out of habitual ways of looking.

In the works on display at the Turnpike Gallery, the range of influences and interests upon which Kondo draws is made clear. He paints the landscape, but never from life. He is not interested in attempting to image the reality of the natural world, but rather our idealised and stereotypical notions of how it might or should exist. His actual sources are geology books and gardening magazines, photographic reproductions which he crops and photocopies, then projects and traces onto canvas. The results reflect and magnify our received ideas about the visual makeup of the Great Outdoors.

The sky is supposed to be blue so Kondo paints it blue, even when the colour grates against the rest of the picture and the intensity of sunlight which it implies is plainly inappropriate to the scene as a whole (a trick with a precedent in Ren Magrittes Lempire des lumires, 1952, in which a midday sky is matched with a darkened, lamplit street). What fascinated him in the photograph which inspired Ascending Trees, 1999, was their positioning.

Almost too perfect, it reminded him of the miniature gardens with which he played as a child. In Mountain F, 1997, he presents his subject stretched vertically so as to assume taller proportions, and thus better correspond with the commonly shared perception of a ‘perfect’ mountain shape.

Mountains are important sites for Kondo, resonating both personally and culturally. Mountain F is based on a peak in Tasmania, but Kondo prefers to discuss it with reference to the scenery and mythology of his native country.

‘ When I grew up as a child in Japan, on a clear winter day, one could see the mountains called Sanageyama to the east and Ibukiyama to the west. And just north of our town, there was a small hill with three black boulders, one of which had a footprint-like indentation. The local legend had it that a mythical goblin called tengu used this as a stepping-stone to jump across from Ibukiyama to Sanageyama’.
Mountain F also nods towards the much obsessed-over alien landing-site in Steven Spielbergs Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The potential for one place to remind us of another, and to trigger off a connected association, is the artists real subject here.

The recent revival of interest in German Romanticism and the sublime spiritual confections of Casper David Friedrich is a tendency from which Kondo is keen to distance himself. While the two artists may employ similar imagery, it is arrived at from traditions which are, literally and metaphorically, miles apart. If Kondo looks back to the 19th Century, it is to Eastern masters such as Hokusai. Even then it is the bold composition and simplified colour to which he responds (comparing the effect to that of computer graphics) rather than any particular parallels in conceptual base or theoretical standpoint. Kondos pictures may have atmosphere, but the underlying irony is palpable, inscribed in the surface of the image.

Contemporary British artists with whom Kondo might be said to have an affinity include painters Peter Doig and Dan Hays, and the video maker David Blandy. All these artists are concerned with the influence which modern technology brings to bear on the representation of landscape. The atmosphere of Doigs pastoral scenes is altered irrevocably when we discover that they are based on stills from horror movies, while Hayss predilection for obscuring lush woodland views behind layers of TV fuzz implicates them, and us, in an open debate on the ubiquitous power of mediation. In Blandys projections Still Life, 1999 and Ring, 1998, the virtual settings of two computer games are stripped of all clues to their origin, leaving a portentous sunset and an empty forest clearing. Both share with Kondos work a ghostly, unreal beauty; a mood which is hard to define because the vision to which it belongs is just that; a vision, as ethereal subjective as a mirage or hallucination.

That the natural world itself is changing such that enhancement, synthesis and simulation continue to threaten the wild with eradication on one hand, and rigid control on the other, suggests that landscape as a subject for art is increasingly unlikely to offer up the hope of a picturesque safe haven. On the contrary, it is likely to become an ever more pertinent theme, as our environment is stretched to breaking point by a thousand conflicting interests. Kondo acknowledges the implicit violence of this scenario but sensibly resists the temptation to summon lurid or apocalyptic imagery. He prefers to hit us with a flower. Thus in Cactus on the Hill, 1999, the aesthetic disjunction between the fragmented complexity of the plant in the foreground and the smoothly gradated sky behind functions as a visual wake-up call. A close look at the surface of one of Kondos paintings often reveals a pattern reminiscent of military camouflage. That they fail so completely to merge discreetly into the background is entirely intentional, and we are confronted once again with the difference between a manufactured approximation and the fetishised original, itself now fading fast into history.

 

Michael Wilson