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Kumi Machida and bringers of good luck
Written by Satoshi KOGANEZAWA   
Published: September 02 2008

1. The first solo exhibition in Japan

“Kumi Machida - Drawing in Lines of Japanese-style Painting” was held at Takasaki Tower Museum of Art (Jun. 24 – Aug. 24, 2008), while her solo exhibition tour started off in Kaestner Gesellschaft at Hanorfa, Germany (Feb. 22 – May 12, 2008). We congratulate her that Japan's first solo museum exhibition was held in her home town -– a regional city called Takasaki, in Gunma-prefecture, though we regret to say that the initiative for holding the exhibition was taken by a foreign museum.

There is one concern. The concept of the arrangement was inspired by her group exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo entitled "MOT Annual 2006 No Border "(Jan. 21, 2006 - Mar. 26, 2006) where Machida was widely noticed for the first time. At this exhibition, her 37 works were displayed in the second section, while 18 Japanese-style paintings by 15 other artists*1 in the first section were entitled "line drawings in Japanese-style painting". The flyer delivered by the museum explains its intention to show "how Machida's work is influenced by traditional techniques of Japanese-style painting and how she successfully uses these techniques. However, would it seem rather excessive to take the general view of many artists and scholars that her piled-up style of drawing and painting, using single lines, is technically similar to that of traditional Japanese-style paintings? Others may also notice that another important reason for this traveling exhibition is that this museum has a number of collections of Seizo Yamazaki who was the second son of Taneji Yamazaki (1893-1983) – a great founder of the Yamatane Museum of Art which specialized in Japanese-style paintings.

Indeed, Machida majored in Japanese-style painting at Tama Art University. Her “lines” are surely one of her characteristic features. However, should we not keep this theory to ourselves? Viewers are not interested in how art works are created. The current situation might be a problem in that a technique that is hard to understand is embedded into her works, including elements such as the word "pillow" word and even wings. Of course, there is no objection to the theory itself and if so the museum should promote discussion of this subject. However, from reading the following sentence, it is clear that this exhibition does not intend to do so nor even consider the point: “Machida surely stands out from other artists of her time. We wonder whether this is because she does not take and sublimate things from the past or present into the work but invents a whole new thing”*2. If the whole new thing is invented, is it not necessary to compare her works with Japanese-style paintings?

Noriaki Kitazawa also talks about Machida's works by using the neologism "Glocal", meaning global and local*3. However there is no concrete reference to which of her works this word refers. To quote Junzo Ishiko (1929-1977), "It is always fruitless to find a substantial example of names for the sake of convenience"*4. A new word is not always necessary when talking about new art.

In this article, I discuss Machida's work from the aspect of local culture and how this influenced her life before leaving Takasaki, although Machida herself denies any such influence. The purpose is to reveal the scenery that originally influenced the artist, and then to consider the transition that took place in her work, which may be completely unconnected with either "Japanese-style paintings" or the "Glocal" concept.

2. Takasaki City's symbols

fig. 1 Dharma with picture, manufactured by Engi Dharma, Kimura Dharma Shop (Maebashi, Gunma) copy right(c) 2008 Kalonsnet

fig. 2 Dharma before being pictured, manufactured by Engi Dharma, Kimura Dharma Shop (Maebashi, Gunma) copy right(c) 2008 Kalonsnet

In Takasaki City, there is a huge statue of Kannon [the Goddess of Mercy] which exceeds 40 meters in height and is made from about 6000 tons of concrete. This is called “Takasaki Hakui Daikannon” and is well-known by all inhabitants of Gunma prefecture. This statue was built by a local businessman, Hosaburo Inoue, in 1936, was renovated extensively in 1995, and still overlooks the city from the top of Kannon-Yama [the Goddess of Mercy Mountain].

“Takasaki Hakui Daikannon” does not have the strong impact of the “Tower of the Sun” (1970) by Taro Okamoto that stands in the Expo Memorial Park in Suita, Osaka. Also, it cannot be said that "Machida grew up seeing the statue every day" since the statue cannot be seen from all parts of the huge city of Takasaki. However, it is worth remarking on this well-known local feature, which wears an elegantly flowing dress and has somewhat puffy features, standing in the city where Machida spent her girlhood until entering college.

Another remarkable item associated with Takasaki is the Daruma doll, which is familiar to all Japanese as a charm bringing business prosperity, good luck in studies, and well-being of the family, etc [fig. 1, 2]. Takasaki is the top production centre of this charm in Japan. The design used to suggest Buddhist Saint Dharma meditating in a cross-legged sitting posture, but gradually became more oval, like a cocoon or an egg, until it attained its present form of a globe.

At the beginning of January every year, the spot sale association "Nanakusa Daruma-festival" is held in Dharma Temple, Shorinzan, which is the birthplace of the Daruma doll. Old Daruma dolls that have served their purpose over one year are returned to the temple and new ones are bought. A large number of returned Daruma dolls are burned during a service called "Don-don Yaki". I am also from Gunma Prefecture, and have thus taken part in this event, not in Takasaki but at a different location. The red Daruma dolls made of paper and bamboo blaze up, making an impressive noise. The sight of the black and white smoke staggering up into the sky has left a striking memory in my mind although there is no religious solemnity involved.

fig. 3 Kumi Machida 'Lucky Talisman' 1995, sumi (blue) on torinoko red paper, 89.3×44.7cm, owned by Nishimura Gallery. Image referred from "Kumi Machida - Lines talking over words" (Takasaki Tower Museum of Art, 2008), copyright © 2008 Takasaki Tower Museum of Art

fig. 4 Kumi Machida 'Cycad' 1996, sumi (blue) on kumohada linen paper, 68.7×89.5cm, owned by Gellery Art Conposition. Image referred from "Kumi Machida - Lines talking over words" (Takasaki Tower Museum of Art, 2008), copyright © 2008 Takasaki Tower Museum of Art

Takasaki is a city where the religious atmosphere has been deeply adapted into daily life, as seen in the events connected to the statue of Kannon or the Daruma doll. Machida once said in an interview that bringers of good luck such as Daruma dolls or model beckoning cats were familiar objects in her childhood*5. However, it is also true, as with other cities, that Takasaki has no other interesting individual qualities apart from those mentioned above, which are not sufficiently inspiring for people such as Machida who wish to study painting. For such people, there is no option but to leave for a more interesting city to realize their ambitions and dreams.

It is in such a town that Machida was born and grew up, and I sympathize with her remark, "I have little attachment to my home"*6. On the other hand, it is hard for me to ignore the fact that motifs of Takasaki frequently appear in her works. Machida’s works are undoubtedly full of the climate and atmosphere of her home, although she finds her true identity within herself.

3. Inspired with bringers of good luck

It is worth noticing that in an interview, some time after leaving college, she produced many drawings and paintings on white paper-maché and sold these at events as good luck charms. “This was inspired by the groundwork of purely painted white paper-maché that I found by chance in a craftsman's shop near my parents' house”*7 and I asked the craftsman for some paper-maché”. It was around this time she started drawing the characteristic “lines” in her work. It would be natural to connect such good luck charms with the drastic change of her painting style from the thick coating-based style she used in her time at college.

fig. 5 Kumi Machida 'Postman' 1999-2006, sumi (blue), mineral pigments on kumohada linen paper, 159×88.5cm, owned by Takahashi Collection. Image referred from "Kumi Machida June 6th - July 1st, 2008" (Nishimura Gallery, 2006), copyright © 2006 Nishimura Gallery

In the second section of the exhibition in the Takasaki Tower Museum of Art, we could see the turning point in her style in works such as “Lucky Talisman" (1995) [fig. 3] where several motifs of good-luck mascots such as Fukusuke, a beckoning cat, and the fox are drawn on the body of a Kewpie doll, and “Cycad” (1996) [fig. 4] where beckoning cats are tightly packed into a cycad fruit instead of the seeds. Though it was not exhibited in this exhibition, “Postman” (1996-200) [fig. 5] can also be placed in this phase since Fukusuke is riding on the back of a cock borrowed from Jakuchu Ito (1716-1800). Anyone would be strongly attracted by the crowded objects which are clearly comparable with her recent works with only a few sharpened lines. It is also one of the characteristics of her work in this phase that a close-up style is not used, although now it is common. Instead, the whole shape of the object is visible within the canvas. It seems more like a portrait of a solid sculpture in which we see the entire body within one frame from a diagonal angle or from the front, though we know it is impossible to capture the whole within a frame. The same intention seems present in her works produced in this era. Even the early works with her characteristic “lines” still have the same tendency to draw the whole shape of the motif as simply as possible on the canvas.

fig. 7 Kumi Machida 'Sign' 2006, sumi (blue), sumi (brown), mineral pigments, pigments on kumohada linen paper, 13.9×17.9cm, private collection. Image referred from "Kumi Machida - Lines talking over words" (Takasaki Tower Museum of Art, 2008), copyright © 2008 Takasaki Tower Museum of Art

fig. 6 Kumi Machida 'Gentle People' 2007, sumi (blue), sumi (brown), mineral pigments, pigments, color pensil on kumohada linen paper, 72.7×90.0cm, private collection. Image referred from "Kumi Machida - Lines talking over words" (Takasaki Tower Museum of Art, 2008), copyright © 2008 Takasaki Tower Museum of Art

In contrast, the “Gentle People” (2007) [fig. 6] occupies most of the canvas with a human head on which there is a big bump. The head is held by someone else and we cannot see or even imagine the appearance of this person as a whole. “Sign” (2006) [fig. 7] is also a typical example of this style, which avoids showing the whole figure of the object, and only reveals a part, as most of Machida’s recent works do. The characteristic style is somehow to close up on or zoom in on a single specific object.

These transitions in composition may represent how Machida got her “lines” from the act of painting white paper-maché, and has now come back to the white paper-maché itself. Put simply, in her early period when she was just focusing on drawing on white paper-maché, it was indispensable for her to use many “lines” since those kinds of traditional mascot are usually decorated excessively. Her focus then shifted to the material itself, such as the white paper-maché, paper, or ink. Machida has been creating more “whitish” works since 2004 as seen in “Device” (2004) [fig. 8], “Playing Games” (2005) [fig. 9], “Relation” (2006) [fig. 10], and “Guest” (2006-2007) [fig. 11] which might mostly have been inspired by white paper-maché itself.

Machida also draws a Kewpie doll frequently, which shows a similar tendency as with the other motifs she uses such as Fukusuke, a beckoning cat and so on. The illustration of a Kewpie doll was originally created by Rose O'Neill and published in the US women's magazine 'Ladies' Home Journal' in December, 1909 as part of a set and immediately became very popular. In 1913 a doll made in Germany was put on the market and at the same time production also started in Japan on the request of Rose O'Neill herself. A Japanese Kewpie doll with an original design also appeared at the beginning of the Taisho era of Japan although it was mostly for export. This version was not naked as it is now but came in different designs including a married couple, one figure wearing Kabuki costume, a version showing the Seven Gods of good fortune, and a figure that mimicked the pose of the beckoning cat*8. The idea of a varied series of Kewpie dolls was also seen in Machida’s works, where a number of Fukusuke or some other mascots are drawn on the body of a Kewpie doll almost like tattoos - her Kewpie dolls seem somehow to be bringers of good luck or objects of veneration. It is interesting to see that her Kewpie dolls might often carry out the same function as her “Lucky Talisman” of being bringers of good luck.

fig. 9 Kumi Machida 'Playing Games' 2004, sumi, mineral pigments, pigments on kumohada linen paper, 116.7×90.9cm, private collection. Image referred from "Kumi Machida - Lines talking over words" (Takasaki Tower Museum of Art, 2008), copyright © 2008 Takasaki Tower Museum of Art

fig. 8 Kumi Machida 'Device' 2004, sumi, mineral pigments, pigments, silver leaf on kumohada linen paper, 91.1×45.0cm, private follection. Image referred from "Kumi Machida - Lines talking over words" (Takasaki Tower Museum of Art, 2008), copyright © 2008 Takasaki Tower Museum of Art

Let us return to talk about her work. As Machida thickened lines by piling up the paint, the effect was to strengthen the visual impression of her infant-like objects which might have had a weak impression if only the features themselves were drawn. At the same time, by decreasing the number of lines (or, in other words, gathering the lines into one) she turned her interest more to the materials such as paper and inks. In approaching the work, we cannot help noticing the beautiful texture of the paper (it is called “Kumohada Mashi” made from a mixture of hemp fibers and Broussonetia. The name represents a soft and fine texture which is compared to clouds), the ink, and the paint itself. Additionally, a shadow in thin ink is given to these ‘lines” which helps to produce a three-dimensional quality in her work. The act of shading is not a common technique in the Japanese-style painting which Machida learned at college. However, she yearned to show the solid features of her subject and chose this method of shadowing to fulfill that wish. This is a convincing way of understanding her lines. Basically, Machida's work portrays the sublime nature of its various elements, starting with the bringer of good luck.

4. conclution

The bringers of good luck are considered to provide a clue about Machida's work above. To see the places and memories related to the artist’s childhood - it is my conclusion that these are the most important elements of her art though they might seem rather insignificant compared with theories based on the academic genre in art or on globalization. She said in an interview;

"I have never had a specific aim in my art. I have rather always been anxious about whether or not my experiment to draw sensuous or conceptual objects coming from my mind has the persuasive power to convey my intention or to be admitted as a proper art work, for instance Fukusuke, which has no common view, just a curiously shaped head or hand which exists only in my imagination. I have then been trying little by little to change my style of drawing and painting but have never been completely convinced it is understood by audiences”*9.

fig. 10 Kumi Machida 'Relation' 2006, sumi (blue), sumi (brown), mineral pigments, pigments on kumohada linen paper, 181.5×343.0cm, owned by BIGI Co., Ltd. Image referred from "Kumi Machida - Lines talking over words" (Takasaki Tower Museum of Art, 2008), copyright © 2008 Takasaki Tower Museum of Art

fig. 11 Kumi Machida 'Guest' 2006, sumi (blue), sumi (brown), mineral pigments, pigments on kumohada linen paper, 89.3×44.7cm, owned by Ohara Museum of Art, Okayama. Image referred from "Kumi Machida - Lines talking over words" (Takasaki Tower Museum of Art, 2008), copyright © 2008 Takasaki Tower Museum of Art

I would like to keep a close eye on her art in the future, since it is still taking great strides in innovation.


Exhibited 18 works by the following 15 artists; Shinsui Ito, Shoen Uemura, Tamechika Okada, Usen Ogawa, Togyu Okumura, Tamako Kataoka, Reika Yoshikawa, Kokei Yoshikawa, Kanzan Shimomura, Tsuneo Takahashi, Ryuko Tsutaya, Gakuryo Nakamura, Heihachiro Fukuda, Yukihiko Yasuda, Somei Yuki.
Shinobu Aoki “Kumi Machida - Lines talking over words”, Takasaki Tower Museum of Art, 2008
Noriaki Kitazawa “Uruwashiki ‘Gohai’ - Flat and sharp screen by Machida” the featured article “Kumi Machida, over line universe” in “Art Top” No.222, July 2008, Geijutsu Shinbunsha.
Junzo Ishiko “Zokuaku no Shiko” (1971), Taihei Shupansha
“Interview - Amanojaku no Yuutsu” in “Art Top” No.222, July 2008, Geijutsu Shinbunsha.
“Symposium – Stars of new Japanese art by Tsuneo Tsuji” in “Art Top” No.208, March 2006, Geijutsu Shinbunsha.
See *5
Refer to the document “The angel of the 20th century - Design of toy cupid” (1995), INAX Corporation
See *5

Related Exhibition

“Kumi Machida - Drawing in Lines of Japanese-style Painting”
24/Jun/2008 - 24/Aug/2008
Venue: Takasaki Tower Museum of Art

Last Updated on September 10 2015

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