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In the Studio with Mizuki Nishiyama

In his poem In Time of Plague, Thom Gunn writes “My thoughts are crowded with death / and it draws so oddly on the sexual / that I am confused to be attracted / by, in effect, my own annihilation.” It is this taut dynamic between the force of eros and the fragility of existence that Mizuki Nishiyama’s canvases reckon with. Contradictions abound as violence and tenderness find an equal playing ground in her work. Sensually rendered figures are superimposed against thrash-like brushstrokes and knife cuts. These depictions of the body within and amidst the transgressive are hard-won, crafted through the sieves of philosophy, poetry, music, dance, and the intersectionality of being Japanese and a woman. Through abstract figurative compositions that straddle the visceral and the spectral, Nishiyama carves a new sense of empowerment as she redefines her multiplicitous identity. We had the pleasure of speaking to Nishiyama to hear more about her practice.

I’ve noticed that there are a lot of jazz records in your studio space. Do you see a correspondence between the music you listen to and the art you create?

I’m a fan of classic jazz, free jazz, and blues and soul, and that’s the primary reason I moved my New York studio to East Harlem. I do have a soft spot for darker flavors. This sensibility is inspired by Junichiro Tanizaki’s book In Praise of Shadows, in which he describes how there is something so important in a black lacquer bowl or the darkness of a latrine. It’s very similar to French philosophy and literature, which my father specialized in. Writers like Georges Bataille juxtaposed the beautiful with the grotesque, eroticism with death. I’ve found that this counterbalance of light and dark is applicable to depicting my experience of being a woman of mixed Japanese heritage.

You talked about how writing seems almost too naked or confrontational. Do you think there is a veil of comfort in painting?

Yes, because I can abstract in painting. I can make things murkier, so I don’t feel that exposed. I try to go against a lot of the norms of being Japanese, especially inspired by my more Italian upbringing, but I think that there’s a very conservative Japanese side within me. Meaning, I would spill everything out, but afterwards take some time and retreat. This tension is a product of where I’ve been brought up. Not the way I’ve been raised exactly, but everything that surrounds one’s childhood: what you smell, what you taste, what you hear. It’s the thin layer of my surroundings that made me who I am.

Where did the craving to be an artist come from? 

I come from a family of artists, and I’m really thankful for that. My father was in fashion, but he was also a flamenco guitarist. My mother’s a painter, and she mainly focuses on abstract expressionist landscapes that contain Chinese and Italian influences. My grandmother is a traditional Nihonga (日本画)  painter, and my granduncle was doing watercolor in France and Japan in the 1950s. You can tell that my childhood was filled with an intense sensory stimulation.

Traces of this lineage can be seen in my work. I just completed a piece called Behind the Shoji Door. Shoji is the inner layer of the Japanese sliding doors made from paper. In our old ancestral home, my grandmother would shut the shoji door and lock herself in. I wasn’t allowed to go through that area as a kid, but from a distance I could always see her shadows on the other side of the door when she lit a candle. Again, it’s what exists behind the veil in darkness that fascinates me. 

How do you see all of your different influences and cultures meet on the canvas? 

When I create a piece, I throw everything on the canvas. I call it vomit. It’s very immediate, and that’s my way of trying to capture the exactitude of emotions. At the same time, there’s a more academic side of me where I take time to research, to blend things together. I think it’s interesting that my generation has turned around to go back into the history of things after living outside of Japan for so long, returning to a place our parents have tried so hard to step away from. 

What is the inspiration behind the pieces you’ve consigned?

Aesthetically, I’ve developed this knife cutting technique, in which I blend all of the line forms into literal cutting marks with my pallet knife. I was trying to find something that is simultaneously elegant yet hard to swallow. In a way, I keep going back to a femme fatale character: a persona that is dangerously beautiful.

The paintings reflect my interest in the different words used to express the body in Japanese. I’m specifically interested in nikutai (肉體), which means flesh connoted with a butcher-like coldness. The seiza (正坐) position, which is consistently featured in my work, explores the psychology of this constrained, nikutai-informed physicality. In Ark Sakura, the figure’s fingernails dig deep into the kneecaps, a rigid position that poses questions of lust, love, morality, and cultural heritage. 

In my other piece Tatami Burns, juxtaposition reappears. The Tatami mat is a woven flooring material, made of rush and cloth, that simultaneously feels smooth and harsh from its organic nature. I wanted to exploit a sense of aggression through sexual innuendo in this painting. There is an interplay between comfort and pain, domination and frailness– dichotomies that are relevant to my experience of being a Japanese woman. 

Is there a piece of art, or an artist, that has opened the door for you to show the multitude of ways to explore the female body and experience? 

My work references Yurei (幽霊), which means Japanese female spirits. Yurei often have been condemned: their babies have been taken away from them, their husbands murdered them, and the Yurei come back in the underworld to reclaim their lives lost to abuse. I’ve never seen work as haunting as Fuyuko Matsui’s paintings of Yurei. It reminds me of home because it’s painted in the same Nihonga style as my grandmother’s paintings. 

In London, I was able to exhibit with one of my idols, Cecily Brown, a master of capturing the female body and encapsulating sexual tension through abstraction. It was an amazing experience to have my work be in conversation with her, even though she’s quite the opposite in terms of my imagery. I have a sense of rigidity through my knife work, but she creates liquidity through her use of oil. Even though everything blurs in Brown’s canvases, you can clearly tell what’s happening in the scenario.

If there’s any artist you could have dinner with, who would that be and what would you say to them?

Can it be a dinner party?

Sure. Why not?

Okay. It’s because I have a love for so many elements. Georges Bataille would be one. Bach would be one. Pina Bausch. John Coltrane. Ella Fitzgerald. Sylvia Plath. Edvard Munch, he has been a huge inspiration in my understanding of relationships between figures. 

I think I would also love Elvis to be there. Why not?

written by

Ethan luk

photography by

Joyce ching

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