Saturday, January 5, 2013

Drawn to the Fantasies of Toshio Saeki

by Drew Martin
Four months ago I posted EAST vs. WEST: The Graffiti Paintings of Gajin Fujita, which began:

I went to Japan several years ago looking for unique illustrations. What I found was a lot of run-of-the-mill anime. What I was seeking was actually much closer to home, in America.

This is not entirely true. When I was in Japan, I was on the lookout for unique illustrations and most of what I saw was run-of-the-mill anime, which ranged from manga for kids to adult porn. But one night I was looking over boxes of used books in an open-air book market. I found one beat up book with very bizarre drawings. They had strong lines and a limited palette of flat colors. The content was pretty raunchy but they were so interesting and surreal. I did not have any Yen on me so I tore out a few pages and stuffed them in my coat pocket. I kept them under wraps since then. I never tried to find out about the artist or his popularity. Last year, however, I saw someone’s posting of a similar piece, done by the same artist.

Toshio Saeki is the 67 year old creator of the strange world I had glimpsed. Saeki is known as Japan’s master of erotic and a great influence some of his country’s most known contemporary artists, including Aida Makoto and Takashi Murakami.

Saeki's paintings often feature men and women as well as demons, animals, corpses, and other creatures in various erotic or violent settings. His work has received warnings from the Japanese government, though it has never been officially banned.

A 2010 solo show of Toshio Saeki's drawings at the Minna Gallery in San Francisco, inspired the following comment from Fecal Face Dot Com ("a content-rich, comprehensive, multidisciplinary art and culture website supporting the art scene in San Francisco and beyond since 2000"):

In a wacky mixture of classical Japanese woodblock style and contemporary Hello Kitty kitsch, Japanese illustrator Toshio Saeki challenges just about every taboo you can think of, and a few you probably never even considered. Some might call Saeki's potpourri of extreme sexuality warped, but this skilled and inventive artist has the kind of following in Japan that comic-book genius R. Crumb inspired in this country during the seventies.

Saeki’s name came up again a couple days ago because, to my utter surprise, he was listed by the Huffington Post's 10 International Artists to Watch in 2013. Ironically, I just threw away my Saeki prints. I thought, these are not something I want anyone digging up in my closet when I am gone.

The Post shows a full version of the top image here and the following writeup:

WHO: Toshio Saeki, a Japanese artist who mixes traditional Eastern imagery with Otaku subject matter, to create vibrant and erotic ink drawings.

WHY: He is showcasing his first UK exhibition at the Print House Gallery... at the age of 67. The show will be on view March 8-31, 2013.

Saeki is one of the most fascinating artists I have ever encountered. He stirs up the feelings I had when I first saw the paintings of Salvador DalĂ­, as a kid, and also brings to mind Henry Darger's posthumously-discovered 15,145-page fantasy manuscript The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion.

What I admire most about Saeki’s art is his total lack of inhibition. There is no holding back from his sexual fantasies and violence. He is completely free. I do not think I could create such work while I had living relatives.

I also like how Saeki makes use of his medium. He draws in a realistic manner and uses perspective but his consistent line weight and flat colors keep the drawings on the surface of the page, in your face. He takes you places that would be hard to follow in any other medium. With a lot of effects and a lot more effort you could probably recreate some of his images with photography and computer graphics but you would lose the human touch. Saeki's images flow from his mind, down his arm to his pen. What could be simpler or more direct?

Despite the extreme content in most of his work (pictured here are the most benign), Saeki maintains a normalcy in each picture. They may be grotesque but they are not horrific like Goya's The Disasters of War.

From Saeki’s Memories of 1970:

During preparatory school, my Uemura classmate had discreetly shown me erotic paintings from the Edo period. I believe to remember that they were prints printed on Japanese paper. The colors were bright. At the sight of the scenes represented, perfectly shameless, I was astounded then conquered by confusion. In regard to when girls and boys test each other's embarrassment, I “had already played doctor”, an experiment which returned a little of my senses to me at the moment. However, I was not at all able to understand this grotesque tangle of bodies. I had been doubtless convinced that they were drawings skillfully carried out by the insane, applying an indecent imagination to unreal scenes.