Back to Basics / by Jeannine Cook

Reading an article in this month's Art + Auction about "Artists - Back to the future" about a recently-noted trend of artists and their collectors returning to simpler, more personally-executed and handcrafted creations, I was struck by the statement: " Just because there is a simplicity in means does not mean the process or results will be simple. ... It's this question of how do we get back to basics by going a very, very long distance. It's a balance between immediacy and complexity" (Massimiliano Gioni, curator of the New Museum, New York).

I started thinking about how I personally would define basics and the balance between immediacy and complexity. I realised that for me, the answer was very simple - I only have to look at Japanese or Chinese art of past centuries, woodcuts or brush paintings in particular. Perhaps I should initially admit to a predisposition to Japanese art: I grew up with Japanese woodcuts on the walls of my home in East Africa. They were part of one set of a huge series of woodcuts that were commissioned after the 1923 earthquake by foreigners living in Yokohama. They were copied from traditional woodcut images, and the objective of this wide-ranging commission was to help the artists get back on their feet after the devastating earthquake and fire. The set with which I lived was very varied but of great beauty and, of course, of especial meaning for me since my grandfather had been one of the people commissioning the Japanese artists.

That said, I have later learned that the essence of simplicity in art does indeed require enormous skill and sophistication of mind and hand. I find that some of the hand scrolls, paintings and screens of the Momoyama and Edo periods in Japanese art (1573-1615 and 1615-1868 respectively) are the essence of aesthetic simplicity and oh so utterly beautiful. Many years ago, there was a truly wonderful exhibition and Harry Abrams catalogue publication, "Birds, Beasts, Blossoms and Bugs. The Nature of Japan". I frequently dip back into this publication because I find it of enormous inspiration and nurture, reminding me, particularly for silverpoint drawing, that as long as I really, really know the subject matter I am drawing, less is really, definitely more.

An example of such basic mastery is, for instance (and very a-propos with our autumnal migrating flocks of crows streaming noisily past our windows), a series of three ink paintings with wash on paper of crows, "Snow, Moon and Flower". One, " Crow in flight before the Moon", by Maruyama Okyo (1733-1795), is just a deftly detailed crow silhouetted in flight with the moon half delineated in white behind him - so minimalist it is breath-taking. And one has to remember this is a brush painting in ink - no room for hesitations, erasures, or even running out of ink at the wrong moment... Certainly one definition of "immediacy". Another of these paintings is "Crow on a Plum Branch" by Matsumura Goshun (1752-1811): the bird perches on the branch in simple, believable reality, yet he is pared down to only the essential detail. The plum branch is reduced to a shorthand suggestion which, nonetheless, is entirely complete in its depiction.

Another wonderful six-fold lacquer screen in the same show was of crows in flocks and gatherings of raucous intensity, just their silhouettes against the gold leaf on paper. It was executed by an unknown artist in the Edo period of the early 17th century, but done by someone who had studied this emblematic bird intensely, in all its attitudes and stances - at a time when there was no photography to freeze flight or movement. It is yet another wonderful example of back to basics ... knowing your subject matter thoroughly, having a mastery of your technique and compositional intentions, and just following the age-old tradition of an artist using hand and eye to create images that convey messages of beauty,, angst, joy, whatever....