Satoshi Furui at the Gallery Koyanagi

by Monty DiPietro

In a short essay attendant to his exhibition "Vivid and Terrible Matter," painter Satoshi Furui argues whether mankind’s last hundred years can be described as "the century without God." "I intend," he writes, "to embody the existence of God as a reality in each period of time, with a comprehension of the fact that the nuclear exists in the 20th century and will persist in the coming century."

The Kanagawa-based artist is showing 15 recent oil paintings of nuclear detonations in his exhibition at the Gallery Koyanagi on Tokyo’s Ginza art strip. Working from photographs, Furui, 39, builds the thick light and color of mushroom clouds onto wood panels with fine sable and raccoon dog tail brushes. There is a surprising amount of variation in technique – the works range from deeply textured to crude, but all are vivid and, given the subject matter, unsettling. Unlike the familiar photographic records of these blasts, many of Furui’s paintings possess an almost dreamlike unrealness. In "Mushroom Cloud #07" (45x45cm, 1997), a thin stalk of smoke seems to trail toward the firmament in an almost fragile manner before blossoming into a dome-shaped mass above. Other works have so much energy to them that one can almost hear the blast’s roar.

Furui drew his inspiration for the series from controversy surrounding the Smithsonian Institute’s 1995 National Air and Space Museum exhibition, "The Last Act: The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II." So heated was public debate over plans to present objects, photographs and texts documenting the destruction of Hiroshima that the institute’s board of regents cancelled the show, electing instead to display the forward fuselage of the Enola Gay and information about restoration of the B-29 aircraft that had dropped "Little Boy" on the city 50 years earlier.

Furui, mindful of the different perceptions on the bombing that exist both between and among Japanese and Americans, was disappointed when the Smithsonian’s decision ended dialogue on the matter. Later the same year, he set up a web page where visitors could exchange comments, and after obtaining a photo book of bomb tests, abandoned his work in mixed media installation and began to make his paintings. The artist draws no distinction between the test detonations that account for 14 of the pieces in the show and his painting of the Nagasaki explosion which claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the God Furui is striving to embody has one hell of a wrath.

Dressed in black, the soft-spoken Furui denies being a dark or pessimistic person, "I have this black suit, if I wore a white shirt, I’d look like a waiter!" Neither does he consider himself a political artist – he holds no opinion on the presence of American military bases in this country, and shrugs his shoulders when it is suggested that his paintings might bring young people to understand the horrors of war. For Furui, the way into his work is purely through aesthetics, although one senses that our criteria for seeing may be what really interests the artist.

"I’ve yet to have a negative reaction to the work, most people compliment me on the beauty they see in the paintings," he says, but here Furui pauses a moment before adding, "I personally think it very much depends on how you interpret the word ‘beauty’." A further clue to the message in "Vivid and Terrible Matter" can be found in the conclusion of Furui’s above-noted essay: "If we ever find a beauty in these scenes, it means that they are in fact more awful matters than we imagined."

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