There is a well-used expression in Japan that translates literally as "three years on a rock." In Japanese, it has a poetic, if solemn ring ― isi no ue ni mo sannen. But the reason it has been passed down for generations, from masters to apprentices, teachers to students and managers to young employees, is the inherent truth of its advice: in order to learn something substantial, something of true value ― be it a new job, craft or academic discipline ― one should be prepared to endure three years of training and study with little or no initial reward or sense of tangible progress.
It is clear from a consideration of the early artistic training of Shintaro Ajioka that this contemporary artist has spent his time on the rock. Using the very soil of his home country, Ajioka creates works that are compelling for the purity and beauty of the earth's voice that speaks through them.
Ajioka began his career doing what was, in the early 1970s, avant-garde calligraphy mixed with drawing. Although his efforts brought critical acclaim ― and a parallel career as an award-winning type-designer ― there was little personal satisfaction. As he sought a new direction, Ajioka contemplated the words of advise he had received from the late Takeo Yamaguti, the highly respected patriarch of Japanese abstract painting. After looking at some of Ajioka's work, Yamaguchi told him to "paint not the curtain blown by the wind, but the wind that blows the curtain. " Ajioka took this as an admonition to seek the truth behind the visual phenomenon.
To see through to the truth, Ajioka decided he needed to free his eyes of the blinding machinations of his own will.
In lieu of the meditation of a Buddhist monk, he sought to silence the self by means of a disciplined exercise of painting. He chose to work with the most fundamental brush stroke of both painting and calligraphy ― the dot that results from the first setting of the brush on paper. Day after day for three long years, he repeated the same meditative process ― spreading a large sheet of paper roughly 2 meters square on the floor of his studio and then proceeding to fill it with dots, working methodically from upper left to lower right.
Again, the results won critical acclaim, but the enlightenment that awaited Ajioka at the end of those three years was not what he expected. He realized that he would only reach a selfless state when he found what he truly loved to do. "I needed to find a me that could do something with complete absorption," he explains. And he knew that until he found this, there would be no real meaning to any work he did. To make sure he didn't forget this lesson and fall back into the old dot style of work, Ajioka deliberately covered the entire floor of his large studio with tables, thereby denying himself the space necessary to execute works in his previous fashion.
For a while, Ajioka didn't work at all. Yamaguti had advised him to study nature. So Ajioka walked in his yard and the surrounding countryside, picking up natural objects, such as stones, twigs and branches. He held them and "listened" until they told him of their natures ― what they would become, not what he would make of them. The creations that came out of this period had a simple beauty, a kind of selfless innocence.
Eventually, this led him to the element that he could work with more naturally and with greater joy than sny other ― the soil of his hometown of Toyohashi, the place in central Japan where he has lived his whole life. For Ajioka, earth is the most honest medium of all, the hardest to manipulate. He found he could paint with soil, but only on its own terms, "You never know you actually take the soil in your hand how it will behave on any particular day," says the artist.
What first strikes many about Ajioka's soil paintings is the rich beauty of the colors. But the more you learn about his working method, the more you realize to what great lengths he goes to avoid manipulating those colors. In many of the works, the soil is applied in horizontal stripes, which are in fact strata samplings from a specific place, reproduced in the same order and as close to the original intervals as possible.
And although the samples come from places where the earth has been gashed to make way for road construction or some other development project, the artist downplays any ecological message, other than to call the resulting works "reports" from the place of the sample.
In one of his numerous works titled color sample, he covered the floor of a display room with neatly arranged squares of what looks like a carefully selected spectrum of the full range of earth colors, from neutral grays to brown umber, bright yellow ochre and red sienna. In fact, they are samples taken at regular intervals along a course from the Pacific coast to the mountainside near his home in Toyohashi and placed randomly in the grid of squares.
Ajioka has shown the earth in many ways. He has combined soil paintings with calligraphy, using poems from Japan's Man'yoshu. He has packed earth into 3-meter columns and laid them on the gallery floor like a set of huge Conte drawing sticks ― charcoal, yellow, red, and brown. He has used colored soils to dye pieces of cloth for a patchwork tea-ceremony room of such simple yet refined beauty that even the great master Sen no Rikkyu would surely have approved.
Naturally, Ajioka avoids mixing the earth with any other medium whenever possible, preferring to compact it into blocks or beds and let them gradually crumble over the course of an exhibition. The one medium he uses to fix the soil for two-dimensional works on paper or cloth ― like his recent "earth prints" taken directly from naturally exposed strata ― is the transparent-drying type of common white carpenter's glue.
His determination to let the earth speak with its own voice was seldom as clear as in a 1992 project commissioned by a newly opened museum in central Japan. Ajioka planned to excavate a 1.2-meter-square column down 4 meters into the earth of the museum's back lawn and display it in condensed strata form on a gallery floor. After about a meter of red topsoil, he found that the museum had been built on landfill.
Nevertheless, Ajioka displayed exactly what he had dug and titled the rude assemblage of sludge, concrete shards and assorted garbage Dislocation.
New projects are taking the artist to places like Germany and Arizona. He relishes the chance to encounter new foreign soils. And he ventures out in complete confidence that no matter how far from Toyohashi he may go, he will always be in his own element. All he has to do is take a handful of soil ― and listen.