OMORI Akira, a painter and professor at Kanazawa College of Art, and winner of the 9th TAKIFUJI Art Award (1988, now the International TAKIFUJI Art Award). His works are painted on deformed panels that match the shape of the object being painted. These works are painted on a flat surface but appear to be three-dimensional. The world in which the frame and other external elements have been removed from the painting makes us aware of the empty space inside the painting, and the wonder of the painting itself. （Interviewer: SHINOHARA Tomoari, Date of interview: Augusta 2019, First appearance “The International Takifuji Art Awards 40 year’s Anniversary (published in 2020)”）
In high school, I wanted to be an illustrator
——You won the TAKIFUJI Art Award while you were a student at Kanazawa College of Art.
I am grateful to have received the scholarship, and most of all, I am grateful that my paintings were appreciated on a national scale for the first time. Nowadays, the range of student activities has expanded, with exchanges among universities and students going abroad, but at that time, information was scarce for art universities in rural areas. It was stimulating to be invited to the award ceremony and reception, and it was nice to meet to the students of my generation and people who were aspiring to become artists.
——What was your style at that time?
My style at that time was different from what it is today. However, I realized later that I was very particular about the nested structure, the space within the picture, and the relationship between the things depicted in the picture. Even though the way I paint may differ, the way I handle the elements of the relationship between things and space, between things and things, or between flat surfaces and space, is directly connected to my current work.
——can you explain this in detail?
In figurative paintings, you usually paint something that gives a sense of depth or space on a flat surface. People take it for granted that this is what a painting is supposed to be, but it is actually a mystery. Why does it look like a space even though it is flat? I was thinking about how I could use that mechanism to create a more interesting picture.
——You were more interested in the mechanism of painting itself than in what to paint.
For example, the part where nothing is painted on the canvas looks like a “thing”, or the painted part looks flat. Such a phenomenon is a contradiction inherent in painting, and it is also a feature. Since I was a student, I have been fascinated by the fun of it. My current job is to focus on developing my work in my own way. It hasn’t changed in that sense.
——When did you first become interested in art?
At first, I wanted to be an illustrator. When I was in high school, I saw posters for movies like “STAR WARS” and “BLADE RUNNER” and wanted to draw something like this. H.R. Giger*¹, Syd Mead*², ORAI Noriyoshi*³, and everyone I liked had a touch of oil painting, so I thought oil painting was the way to get good at it. It was a very high school type of thinking.
——What made you decide to go to Kanazawa College of Art?
I lived in Oyabe City, Toyama Prefecture, so it came naturally when I learned that there was an art college in nearby Kanazawa. Since high school, I went to the art school in Kanazawa every Saturday and Sunday. I passed the entrance exam as an active student, but I knew nothing about Western art, as I just wanted to be an illustrator. At the time, I thought I wanted to draw realistically. I just wanted to draw what I saw, but my teacher told me, “That’s not what realism is!” I had no idea what he meant by the way of perceiving the structure of things, the way things should be in space, or the way Western paintings should be viewed. At first, I was puzzled by the art and artistic discussions of my classmates, but eventually I began to find them interesting.
*1 Painter, Illustrator and Sculptor, best known as the creature designer for the science fiction film “ALIEN”
*2 American industrial designer and Illustrator. He has worked on many science fiction films, including the movies “STAR TREK” and “BLADE RUNNER”
*3 Illustrator. His powerful oil paintings have been used in posters for the movies “STAR WARS” and “GOZILLA” and in book covers for famous authors.
Studying in France given time to think
——You studied abroad in France during your junior year of college.
I was selected as an exchange student between the École nationale supérieure d’art de Nancy and Kanazawa College of Art, and spent about a year and a half there. The education at Kanazawa College of Art was academic, and they drilled the fundamentals of figurative painting into me. That suited my skin, but Nancy’s education was completely contemporary art, and they usually taught us almost nothing, leaving us to do as we please. However, when there was a critique meeting in front of the work, the teacher and the students were arguing with each other. Some students discussed wiht tears in ther eyes and eargerly follow their teachers. It was great to be placed in a completely different environment.
——It must have been very stimulating.
It gave me time to think about various things, and that was probably the biggest thing. Before studying abroad, it was common for me to compare myself with others. But in Nancy, I had no one to compare myself with. Students came from many different countries, with different languages, cultures, and age groups, so there was no point in comparison. I realized how simple it was to just be myself, and it made me feel at ease.
——Has it affected your style?
I wonder. I returned to Kanazawa and spent four years at school until I completed graduate school, but I was still unable to sort out what I experienced and the sensations I gained there, and on the surface, I went here and there and back again. I honestly felt that I could not fully digest them.
——After completing graduate school, you chose to pursue a career in teaching.
I heard from an art college alumnus that the design department of a high school in Shiga Prefecture is looking for a full-time teacher. I thought I could teach a specialized subject, so I took the job, but even though it was called a design course, not all the students liked drawing. It was a culture shock at first. When I was in art school, I thought painting was fun, but when I started working, I realized that painting and art could actually be disliked.
——Eh, isn’t that the case?
Well, they are quite disliked. If you can’t draw the way you want in elementary or junior high school, or if you are bothered by what your teachers or friends say, or if you have the experience of not being good enough at the beginning, it is hard for you to like it. There were a lot of kids like that, even though it was a design course. I understood that “Okay, so it’s math for me.” It made me think about things I had never thought about before, such as how to convey to these children the appeal of art and the meaning of drawing, and what the meaning of studying art and design in life is.
——The classes seem to be very difficult. How did you devise your lessons?
For example, I would give them a square piece of paper and ask them to draw two lines on it, whatever they wanted. After having the students paint the four sides, I would make more color copies and ask them to line up the 15 sheets in three rows of five sheets each. When they are all done, I say, “They are all facing the same way, but you can turn them any way you like.” Then, unexpected patterns would emerge. Each task is simple, but when they do as they are told, something unexpected is born. There is a moment when you realize that you have done it right. Then, they start to think about how to make a different pattern, or how to make four lines, and so on. It was a great learning experience for me to see what kind of content would fit the children I was working with, rather than just doing this and that according to the textbooks.
The number of presentations is more important than the number of drawings
——You joined the KOKUGAKAI*⁴ when you were a teacher, didn’t you?
I started exhibiting at the KOKUTEN in my second year of employment, I think. Unlike when I was a student, I was worried that I would lose my connections with the people around me, and since both my teacher at college and a teacher I liked were exhibiting at the KOKUGAKAI, it was a natural progression.
——Do you think it is important to participate in public exhibitions?
I think it depends on the person. There are those who say that unless they create their works at their own pace and present them in a solo exhibition, they are not complete as their own expression. However, the purpose of public exhibitions and competitions is the same, just in a different way. The purpose is to expand human relationships and the work is to be critiqued. As for the critique, of course I listen to other people’s impressions and critiques, but I also place importance on looking at my own work objectively. This is to determine where I am now and how far I have come. I believe that the number of times I have exhibited my work is more important than the number of paintings I have done, so in addition to the KOKUTEN held once a year, I also hold solo exhibitions and group exhibitions. The more opportunities I have to present my work, the faster it develops. This work is still developing no matter how old I am, and I don’t have a goal, but when I think about how many more works I can draw in my life and how far I can go, speed is important. I don’t think doing 10 presentations over 10 years is the same as doing 10 presentations in 1 year, but there are still many things to notice.
*4 Japanese artists’ organization. It consists of five sections: Painting, Print, Sculpture, Craft, and Photography. The KOKUTEN is one of the largest public exhibitions in Japan, operated by the KOKUGAKAI.
Creating a picture with a sense of wonder
——How did you establish your current distinctive style?
Once, I simplified the work to a very simple style, I took away the colors. Instead of drawing the objects themselves, I made them look like paper on which I had drawn them and placed them on the paper. It felt right to me. At first, I was drawing on a square canvas, but as I gradually developed it into more and more complex pieces, the painted background stopped functioning as a picture, and I decided that I didn’t need it, so I decided to eliminate it.
——Your work became a deformed panel because it was “not needed”.
I took the decision rather lightly. It was just a feeling at the time, like, “What would happen if I eliminate it?” At the time, I could not verbalize it well, but by cutting it out, the real space outside the picture and the imaginary space inside the picture are sit side by side. This makes it easier for the viewer to notice the wonder of the imaginary space depicted in the painting. A painting has a frame, and the viewer appreciates the painted scenery and figures with the understanding that “inside this is a painting.” Because there is a promise, we enter the painting with peace of mind and enjoy what is depicted, but if we remove the frame or the background, it is difficult to do so.
——Fiction and reality become ambiguous.
When I tried it, the expression was more than I expected. The work taught me that painting is such a mysterious thing. From there, I have continued to confirm in my own way the reasons for the strangeness of the painting, and how to create a picture that allows the viewer to feel more wonder.
——Do you feel that your work is evolving?
Well, I guess you could say it’s like a spiral. What I focus on changes with each work. What happens if I try to incorporate realistic textures into the painting? Or, on the other hand, what happens if I try to make it less realistic, and focus on color and color schemes, incorporating the tendency of colors to move forward or backward, depending on the color. It’s not just about form, but the theme, or what I want to depict changes as well.
——I think it is a technique that can express ambivalent, polysemic, or complex things.
It is also a characteristic of painting to be able to express the mundane everyday life and the uneasiness and danger that lurks behind it. In fact, I am sometimes told that my paintings look like fun. Perhaps there is an element in the deformed panels that makes me feel that way, but I also draw fighter jets in my paintings, and I am not only expressing enjoyment.
——It seems to be tinged with the image of a state of collapse or incompleteness.
Yes, it does. I realized this later, too, but the form of the painting seemed to make sense for the theme I wanted to convey. The painting itself is fictional, but it is easily connected to the fictionality of reality and the sense of the temporary.
——What direction do you think your expression will take in the future?
As in the past, I don’t have a big vision of what I’m going to do next, but there is always something in what I am working on that will be the subject or seed for the next work. I am confronted rather than finding them. I always find something I haven’t done yet, or something I haven’t completed to this point. I have regrets, I reflect on what I did wrong, and I find issues that I need to work on for the next time
Today’s students are highly conscious and technical
——How do you feel now that you are teaching at Kanazawa College of Art, your alma mater?
Students today are excellent, with no flattery. They have more information than in the past, so they have a higher level of awareness and skill, and they are also competence. I also interact with students with a sense of tension, as if I am constantly being tested. I can’t simply compare, but there are a lot of students who are so competent that I could not have painted so well when I was a student. Today’s students really think about a lot of things. On the contrary, I want to tell them that they don’t have to think that much. Maybe we are in an age where we have no choice but to think about the future.
——What would you do if you were asked to do a poster for a movie or something?
Of course, I would be happy to paint it. The Japan Traffic Culture Association is also involved in public art, and as my paintings have become larger and larger, I have become much more conscious of how they would look in a public place. I am always thinking about how art relates to society, not only in terms of my own work. I have also been teaching at a high school for a long time, so I think there are things I can do in the field of education as well, such as how children can grow through art. Teaching at a college is my job, of course, but I am also given the opportunity to conduct workshops at local junior high schools and the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, and I would like to continue my role in various ways to engage with children and the general public.
Born in Toyama Prefecture in 1964. Received the 9th TAKIFUJI Art Award in 1988, the Master’s degree from Kanazawa College of Art in 1991, and studied at the École nationale supérieure d’art de Nancy, France from 1985 to 1986. Known for his unique works on deformed panels, he has received numerous awards, including the Newcomer’s Prize at the KOKUTEN in 1999, the KOKUGA Prize at the KOKUTEN in 2000, and the Art and Culture Special Prize at the Ishikawa Contemporary Art Exhibition in 2016. He exhibited his works at “The Origin of Individuals” from 2010 to 2014, the Kanji Maeda Grand Prize Exhibition in 2010, etc. He is currently a professor at Kanazawa College of Art, where he also teaches younger artists.