Toru Kuwakubo Biography

For more than a decade since graduating from Tama Art University, Tokyo in 2002, Toru Kuwakubo has been painting large-scale works that often question the very notion of artistic practice. Employing impressionistic techniques traditionally true-to-nature his humorous and cryptic works blend reality with scenes from deep within his imagination and personal experience.

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Kuwakubo describes his process of making art in relation to Setting Sun and People Scattering Money (2009)—a winter landscape overlooking a frozen-over lake populated with ice-skaters and swirls of brilliant colours. “When I painted this work, I was actually in pinch after spending too much money,” he said. Painting is how Kuwakubo sorts through his problems, anxieties and thoughts, reaching into his imagination to produce paintings that straddle a familiar shared reality and images from his own world.  Often his thoughts stray to questions concerning art itself; many of his works concern themes of art and depict objects used in the art-making process, and he once recreated a studio environment at an exhibit at the Yokohama Civic Art Gallery “to create the atmosphere that people imagine these paintings were made in.” Another exhibition called The Sea by Night and Day drew visitors into his imaginary world by separating the two gallery spaces into night and day.

Toru Kuwakubo, like all Japanese people, was deeply moved by the March 2011 Great Kanto Earthquake and the ensuing tsunami. The ocean has always featured prominently in his art, but since 2011 he truly began exploring our relationship with the ocean. The old pomegranate clothes she used to wear (2011) is a heart-wrenching depiction of a ruined sea-side town after the tsunami, from a high vantage point looking down on the tiny people searching through the rubble. The ruins are rendered in expressive subdued tones, but above the town is the sea rendered in brilliant bands of colour and a spectacular star-filled crimson sky. More recently, however, his sea-side paintings are of intimate yet depersonalised scenes of various beach activities. 

In the above-mentioned series The Sea by Night and Day from 2012, each work has a sandy beach and ocean function as the backdrop for surprising combinations of different objects. The works in landscape format measure more than 1.5 metres in width, allowing for continual inspection and reinterpretation. Stars and the Mirror (2012), a massive work more than three metres long, depicts the beach at night covered with different types of fancy framed-mirrors laid out like beach towels, reflecting back the night sky. As if to balance out the stars in the sky, next to each mirror is a different design of living-room floor lamp. There is a universe of multiple meanings imbedded within, from humanity’s insignificance, whether the lamps are personifications of people, or perhaps the mirrors are picture frames and this is a commentary on the artistic process. Other works from this series comment on different philosophies on art, such as Burn the Nude Women which shares a similar composition with the mirrors replaced by framed paintings of nudes in all manner of painting styles propped up on the beach. Other works in the series include Sayonara Sale (a Japanese garage sale held before people leave the country), Painting of Contemporary Art (which could just as easily have been  named Sayonara Sale), and Women on the Sheets depicting bed-sheets hanging to dry, each with sketches of women’s faces on them. 

His technique—with its thick impasto of unmixed oil paints applied with a small brush—is often described as Impressionist, Post-Impressionist or Fauvist, yet it is thoroughly self-aware and stands apart among the contemporary Japanese art scene. When Toru Kuwakubo describes his imaginary world, he talks about the artist that lives in it. His paintings draw us into this imagination, but the literal and figurative detached perspective keep the viewers at bay, leaving them to search for their own interpretations and relationships within.

Toru Kuwakubo has held numerous solo exhibitions around Tokyo, as well as in Singapore, Korea, and London. He is also participated in a large number of group exhibitions, and has been awarded prizes including the VOCA 2012 Encouragement Prize and the First Prize at the 3rd D-Art Biennale. He has published a paperback containing his own short stories and his theories on art, and his artwork is represented in collections including the Toyota Art Collection, the Takamatsu City Museum of Art, the Takahashi Collection, the Flowerman Collection, the Dai-ichi Mutual Life Insurance Company and the JAPIGOZZI Collection.

Text by Ruben van Mansum

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