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An Unparalleled World of Originality: Painter Izumi Kato Depicts the Roots of Life

Born in Shimane Prefecture in 1969 and graduated from Musashino Art University, Faculty of Art and Design, Oil Painting Department; This is Izumi Kato, a contemporary artist who started his career as a painter in earnest around 1998 and has continued to win international acclaim since he participated in the Venice Biennale International Art Exhibition in 2007. All the while keeping mysterious characters as the main motif, Kato not only creates drawings, but also works in wood, stone, soft vinyl, and fabric among a variety of other media. Here, we will delve into the origins of the one-of-a-kind world that Kato has created, where you get an organic feel for the roots of existence itself.

Izumi Kato

"I could already draw"

When an artist truly searches for a means of expression

Born in the town of Shimane surrounded by the sea and mountains, Kato says he loved playing outside when he was a child. "If it was sunny, I would always be that kid going outside to play among nature. I've been good at drawing since I was little, but I was never particularly inclined to draw."

After spending so much time being an active little boy, in high school he devoted himself to football. Later on, without having the conscious aim of becoming an artist, he entered Musashino Art University, and while he was there, he put all his energy into music. "Whilst I was at art school, I was set on becoming a musician. I could already draw just by putting pencil to paper, so I never felt the need to try and improve."

Even when he was showing glimpses of talent as a world-class artist, he still felt no passion towards drawing or painting. However, this all changed at the age of 30. He then realised a strong interest in art, and began to search for his own form of expression. That was when Kato's mysterious figure was born.

"At first, my style was completely different from what it is now. There were points where I used animals as a motif instead. But, anyone can draw a cute animal, right? It's more difficult to draw humans. Works with human motifs are also judged much more harshly. But for me, it was precisely the challenge that made it interesting."

This is how Kato established his own distinct character, and is beginning to broaden the scope of his works.

‘Untitled’, 2021, Oil on canvas, 53 x 145.5 cm Photo / Kei Okano, Courtesy of the artist ©2021Izumi Kato

Overcoming Adversity: The Key to Artistic Expression

I wondered out loud if he chose the theme of nature and the roots of life for his work because he spent his childhood among the mountains and the sea. But that was not the case.

"My work often seems expressive of primitive powers and nature, but I don't consciously decide to use nature as my theme. When a piece of art is forming, it’s like I’m bringing to life something that has come to me intuitively.”

But Kato tells us he also has moments of creative block.

"When I get over a slump, I feel like I've made my way out of a dark tunnel. Rather than 'finding an answer', it feels more like a door to new possibilities has opened."

According to Kato, you can see in an artist's work whether they have overcome such adversity or not.

"In fact, there is an overwhelming number of artists who never get over the slump."

When Kato falls into a slump he would push away the branches holding him back and try out a new form of expression, breaking through the wall that was blocking him. However, he mentions that he doesn't actively choose to push the barriers of expression, or purposefully try to be daring.

"At that moment I feel like I'm working on something that will fuel my motivation. The most exciting thing is when you don't know why you find it interesting. So, whenever I start something new, my ironclad rule is to go forth still unknowing. The moment I figure out why I find it interesting, that interest withers away. That's when I stop creating with the same theme."

It is difficult to systematically deepen your own world view. It is by following their intuition and curiosity that a true artist begins to take shape.

Installation view,'Izumi Kato', Red Brick Art Museum, Beijing, China, 2018 Photo/ Yu Xing & Li Yang, Courtesy of Red Brick Art Museum ©︎2018Izumi Kato

Inspired by the Individuality of Materials from Different Places

Installation view, public art project commissioned by Tai Kwun - Center for Heritage and Arts, Hong Kong, China Photo/ Yusuke Sato, Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin ©︎2018Izumi Kato

Kato currently works in two locations, Tokyo and Hong Kong. He tells us that he also gets a lot of his ideas from his surroundings while he works.

"I had a solo exhibition in Hong Kong. Someone bought one of my pieces, and when I went to deliver it, the place had this beautiful ocean view. So now I rent a corner of that building to use as my studio. There are so many views and landscapes abroad that I have never seen in Japan. As an artist, it's incredibly inspiring."

With all his domestic and overseas exhibits, I ask Kato which venue had left the biggest impression upon him so far. He tells me that it was the Red Brick Museum in Beijing; “It had such a vast space that we were able to exhibit a dynamic installation. In China, when they install new works in a venue, a lot of people are involved to change the space in one go. I felt a strength that is unique to China."

Kato has received high praise both in Japan and abroad, but he modestly tells me, "I wouldn't yet say I was an artist of worldwide attention." Precisely because he has spent such a long time abroad, Kato says "I don't feel that the world is a sweet place." On the other hand, being overseas allows him to feel even more potential as an artist. He hopes to continue to make more and more progress in the future.

Installation view, public art project commissioned by Tai Kwun - Center for Heritage and Arts, Hong Kong, China, 2018 Photo/ Yusuke Sato, Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin ©︎2018Izumi Kato

Art's Role in Society

Finally, Kato talks about his thoughts on the role of art in society.

"Art is not good at explaining things. If you just want to convey something, illustrations and road signs that can convey information regardless of race or age are more suitable. However, the point of art is to be the exact opposite. I want the act of confronting my work to be the precise reason people begin to feel something, and to think something."

Every interpretation is unique. Hearing about the stresses of creation, and the broad-minded approach to each interpretation, I could truly feel the depth of this world-renowned artist. But at the same time, the studio where we spoke was full of nods to Kato's hobbies like plastic figurines and fishing lures. It was impressive that such a space could also evoke such a childhood innocence. My time there pulled me into the world of Izumi Kato, an artist who hasn’t forgotten his youth.


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