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The Vision and Art of Shinjo Ito: An Exhibition of His Work (5/8 - 6/29/2008)

Los Angeles, California

"One day I encountered the line in the Great Parinirvana Sutra that reads, ‘One who gives priority to making Buddha images and stupas, and takes great joy in doing so, will thereupon be born in the Land Immovable (the realm of resolute determination)’" - Shinjo Ito

Shinjo Ito (1906-1989) is one of Japan’s great modern Buddhist artists, although he thought of himself as primarily a religious man. He founded Shinnyo-en, a contemporary Buddhist movement that emphasizes meditation, personal serenity, world peace, the arts, and social responsibility. One hundred items—sculptures, photographs, reliefs, calligraphy, and personal effects—comprise this current exhibit, which attracted 300,000 visitors in Tokyo. Stateside it has been doing boffo box office, so to speak (entry to the exhibit is free), in Chicago and New York. It now resides in Los Angeles where it is installed to superb effect in the Westwood Art Forum. After L.A., the show will travel this year to Milan and Florence.

Shinjo began his working life as a clerk in a camera and radio store, and later became an aeronautical engineer. In February 1936, he quit his job to enter the Buddhist monastery of Daigoji. This decision was not entirely out of the blue because his father was a disciple of Zen Buddhism and his mother practiced a religion derived from Shintoism. Still, leaving his well-paid career in the midst of the Great Depression came at great personal cost. He and his wife, Tomoji, struggled to feed themselves and their kids. The resolve to quit the aircraft industry also brought with it danger. His action was considered “unpatriotic” in a country now de facto ruled by a military dictatorship. Only eighteen days after Shinjo emptied his desk, the infamous “February 26th Incident” occurred. Finance Minister Takahashi Korekiyo, Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal Saito Makoto, and the Inspector-General of Military Education, General Jotaro Watanabe, were assassinated as part of a mounting military takeover of the government.

In the year after he entered Daigoji, Shinjo carved his first piece, a relief of the fearsome Achalanatha, a Buddhist avatar who personifies fierce determination and ultimate compassion. It can be no accident that Shinjo’s life-changing decision and his carving of this resolute figure—which is thankfully part of the exhibit—occurred almost simultaneously. It’s an arresting work, with its flaming aureole alive with the gouges of the chisel that Shinjo employed in its making. The twisting body of the figure is so energetic that it seems to be struggling to free itself from the very wood from which it was carved and transform itself into a free-standing sculpture. In this respect it reminds one of the power and manner, though not the scale, of Michaelangelo’s Slaves emerging from their blocks of marble.

Later, in 1951, Shinjo cast another relief of Achalanatha in bronze (25.6 x 21.7 cm). His 1964 full statue in resin (height, 69 cm) boldly brandishes a sword and seems fierce when looked at frontally, but appears to be weeping from a side view. Thus the sculpture captures the dual nature of the symbolic figure who encourages perseverance yet also is deeply concerned for those who suffer. These works becomes even more amazing—as do all his sculptures—when you learn that this prolific craftsman had no formal artistic training to express his spiritual devotion and teachings.

Some of the oldest images in the exhibit are Shinjo’s photographs, and it is instructive to step back and start with them in talking more about his art, and in viewing the pieces—should you have an opportunity to see them in their current Westwood installation. (A very nice catalogue of the exhibit can be ordered online.)

At the age of nineteen, Shinjo was already making images with a bellows camera. He did study photography—his only formal schooling in the arts. He won awards for his pictures, some of which were printed in Japanese photographic journals of the period. The publication of the photographs of an “amateur” in such journals was a rare tribute and testifies to his artistic skill. Sometime later, in the 1930s, he acquired a Leica, the camera with which the dozen pictures at the exhibit are taken. On this evidence, his prints deserve a full book of their own with an accompanying monograph.

All the photos on display were taken in the period 1934-1939 and most of them are images from the countryside of Yamanashi prefecture, the area where Shinjo Ito was born. With traditional Japanese houses; shade trees; meandering, unpaved, narrow roads; streams and pools; and women in kimonos with babies on their backs, some of the images look like they could have been taken in the 1700s, if the camera had been invented then.

Apart from his poetic landscapes, many of the photographs could be read by the casual eye as merely sentimental. But they contain unsettling elements that do not serve pastoral quietude, and thus they erode the ahh-ain’t-that-sweet feeling of easy romanticism. Electricity poles grow beside the trees, and the wires snake through foliage. Men stride down the dirt roads garbed in the latest western fedoras, white shirts and ties, and wool greatcoats. Suddenly from these cues our history rushes in and enforces the knowledge that beyond this mountain fastness Japan has become an industrial and military empire that will soon challenge U.S. hegemony in the Pacific, a challenge that will end in the ruins of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The old Japan, the one prior to the Meiji Restoration, lingers, but it is most certainly passed and passing.

One striking image—of a vista of the mountains surrounding Yamanashi, with some clouds scudding above them that seem to have been scumbled in from a stage set—bears a resemblance to Georgia’s O’Keefe’s paintings of the Black Hills and of Grey Mesa. In general. Shinjo’s images demonstrate his empathy for working life, cultural ironies, nature, form and composition, light; in sum, all the usual rich and fertile contents and complexities of modernism. He didn’t just point and shoot.

Although Shinjo never gave up photography entirely, his primary mode of expression became sculpture. The piece that dominates his oeuvre, and fills up a big space at the Art Forum is his Great Parinirvana Image. Shinjo began this sixteen-foot-long (4.8 m) golden sculpture of the Reclining Buddha in January of 1957 and completed it in a whirlwind seventy-five days of effort. The image molds in resin the Buddha (i.e., Siddhartha Gautama, aka Shakyamuni) in the garden in Kushinagara where he had gone to spend the Rains Retreat. He lies on his side, rising up on one arm, to give his last teaching to his community before dying.

Speaking historically, this Buddha should have a very old face. He was, after all, eighty years old when he died. He may have had a pained expression because he was dying and knew it, and according to contemporary accounts, his death was preceded by a painful illness from a mortal digestive-tract failure that is traditionally said to have resulted from eating a dish of spoiled meat or mushrooms. Nonetheless, the artist gives him a very young and smiling face in this huge sculpture. Shinjo is on record as addressing this apparent contradiction: “I wanted the image to express Shakyamuni’s enlightenment, which is timeless. My reasoning was that as an enlightened being, he transcended all suffering and the four human trials of birth, old age, illness, and death. That is why I decided to give this Buddha a young face.” And, one may add, a Buddha with a smile enigmatic as the Mona Lisa’s.

Other notable elements of the sculpture are the thumbprints Shinjo left on the image as witness to his physical and contemplative efforts, and the flowing treatment of the drapery folds of the robe the Buddha wears. Shinjo was a great admirer of Greek sculpture. Someone gave him a bronze replica of the Venus de Milo and it stands prominently to his rear in a portrait of him taken in his atelier in Tokyo in the 1960s.

Two other pieces - _Shakyamuni Emerging from the Mountains _(1963; 84.5 cm) and the _Original Preparatory Model for the Great Parinirvana Image _(1956; 79 cm) - have the Buddha clad in flowing robes and demonstrate Shinjo’s ability to handle complex, folded drapery—in bronze. The effect here is miraculous, as good as it gets. The latter bronze is one of my favorite Shinjo works. It’s known by the older staff members in the temple in Japan, where it normally resides, as “the cute-faced Buddha” because of the smile on its face. It’s an enchanting piece. So, too, is the _Head of Shakyamuni _(1960; 57.2 cm), a bust in plaster that I swear is both masculine and feminine at the same time, and which projects nobility, strength, peace, and happiness all at once. Its tint is a soft, pale green that seems to shimmer and shift toward pale turquoise even as you look at it.

_Tathagata Shakyamuni _(1971; 39 cm) is a bronze with gilt and reddish patina that creates the Buddha with his hands in the “dharma-teaching mudra.” He sits on a pedestal. Below him, in a panel relief, his disciples listen intently to his words. Two attentive deer feature in the miniature relief because it was in Deer Park that Shakyamuni gave his first dharma teaching after his enlightenment. Other intricate animals and flowers intertwine in a halo surrounding the Buddha. The artistry here is astonishing, but perhaps best of all is the expression on Siddhartha’s face: It is a very kind look and, without exaggeration, it is so alive that you expect him to open his eyes and look you directly in your own. To remind you, dear reader: This is a bronze and to achieve this effect in that metal is extraordinarily difficult, requiring a master’s hand.

Shinjo was adept in resin, too. Many of the resin sculptures have the traditional gold-leaf surface of classic Buddhas, but some are executed in a warm, pale jade-and-brown coloring fashioned to resemble the patina that results when bronze and copper are weathered. These faux bronzes display the sculptor’s remarkable skill in plastic, inasmuch as they are virtually indistinguishable from the similar metal ones. This conscious use of a very twentieth-century material in the context of a very old iconography perfectly marries Ito’s ancient (subject) and modern (medium) concerns and sensibilities.

“Looking is good, touching is best,” Bob Grochowski, a docent at the exhibit said to me. One unusual and profound aspect of this “show” is that there are several resin and bronze sculptures that one is encouraged to touch. This is very much in keeping with the overall sentiment of the exhibit, and a far cry from the usual gallery SOP where a gaggle of security guards would descend on anyone who attempted to touch anything.

The exhibit has sparked discussion among its attendees as to its purpose. Is this a religious exhibit? Or is it an art exhibit? The sculptures—most of them—come from Shinnyo-en temples where they serve as objects of meditation. Shinjo himself felt that the works expressed his meditation on the Buddha, and he hoped they prompted the same in others. This bespeaks an instrumental purpose for the icons: One that strives to cultivate a spiritual awareness in the viewer—or, to put it more in the Buddhist manner, one that strives to put the viewer in touch with her own buddha nature—one’s inner buddha to put it in modern colloquial terms.

Western art has been long severed from religious roots (quick, name an important modern Christian sculptor), so we have all but lost this way of looking and feeling about art, confined, as we now tend to be, to responses appropriate only to aesthetics and entertainment. The gallery—rather than temple—context of this exhibit reinforces this secular gaze. Still, if you slow down and breathe your way through an extended viewing, you just might find yourself in the kind of meditative frame of mind that Shinjo hoped for. It is to his great credit that he spent his life producing works of art that—as one of their chief effects—remind us of what we have lost. Or to put it the right way about: What we may find again.

A very special thanks to the docents at the Shinjo exhibit for sharing their invaluable insights into Shinjo’s sculpture. And a note that the Shinjo staff are the kindest and most helpful I have ever encountered in a gallery environment.

Written by: Neil Flowers, June 3rd 2008

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