Exhibition: The bewitching art of Fuyuko Matsui

Exhibition: The bewitching art of Fuyuko Matsui

Beauty unleashes the beast through a post-quake show of strength in Yokohama
Fuyuko Matsui
Fuyuko Matsui does her level best to put our intrepid reporter off his stroke.

There’s something bewitching about Fuyuko Matsui. I mean that in both senses of the word.

Yes, she’s rather too beautiful and her art is strangely mesmerizing, but, more than this, she actually seems to have some occult power to interfere with electronic equipment. Arriving at her Tokyo gallery to interview her about her latest exhibition at the Yokohama Museum of Art, my main camera goes on the blink, only to completely recover after I return home.

You may well be thinking, “Idiot! He forgot to charge the battery,” but there’s no way I’d forget that with the prospect of shooting someone as appealing as Ms. Matsui. Indeed, I even brought a back up camera, which luckily was unaffected by whatever dark spell it is that she emits.

Visual appeal

Compared to the last time I met her, five years ago, when my camera also experienced gremlins, the 37-year-old Matsui, who is now married to a boring science professor, looks happier and more radiant.

As she did then, she now declares she has no interest in having children, leading to the thought that her art is her children -- a very disturbing idea when you consider the nature of her work.

Of course an artist’s physical attractiveness should be beside the point -- the point being artistic talent. But it is difficult to separate these aspects in the case of Matsui.

Fuyuko Matsui"The Parasite Will Not Abandon the Body" (2011).

Her beauty and charm seem to serve as important counterpoints to the often grotesque and shocking images that she conjures up with her paintbrush.

These, painted in an ironically beautiful retro Nihonga-style on silk panels, take their influences from as far back as the Muromachi period (1336–1573).

One of her most notable works included in the show is “Insane Woman Under a Cherry Tree” (2006). It shows a woman horrifically vomiting up her guts, including what looks like an embryonic baby, and was inspired by the work of the 18th-century painter of ghosts and ogres Soga Shohaku.

Flying solo

The exhibition at the Yokohama Museum of Art near Tokyo is her first solo show at a major public museum and marks an important watershed in her career with a combination of old works and a series of newer ones focusing on the cheery theme of suicide.

These include “The Parasite Will Not Abandon the Body” (2011), which shows the corpse of woman apparently covered by snow, until a closer look reveals that she is in fact being consumed by an army of maggots.

“I link the works to several diseases or conditions,” Matsui explains.

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“There are many reasons for committing suicide -- for example, one girl commits suicide to get revenge on the man who dropped her; and then a girl had a very sweet boy and he died and she followed him committing suicide. There are nine patterns, nine reasons for committing suicide.”

Back in 2005, when Matsui debuted, her work stood in stark contrast to the cute and geeky art that then dominated the Japanese art scene.

Since then, with the economic storm clouds gathering and the events of last March, the overall picture has darkened enough to give Matsui’s art a glow of sinister prophecy.

However, Matsui believes that the dark side that is so apparent today is something that has always been there.

“Darkness doesn’t start now,” she comments. “In every age there are a lot of people who have hardship.”

Post-quake efforts

Fuyuko Matsui"Joining the Conversion" (2011).

However, even Matsui was shocked by the March 11 earthquake that struck Japan last year.

“When the quake struck I was in my studio painting and the panel fell down and hit me,” she remembers. “I quickly escaped outside, but I was so shocked by what happened in the Tohoku area that I couldn’t paint for two months. My mind was distraught. I stopped preparing for the Yokohama show.”

While some artists tried to address the earthquake directly in their work, Matsui thought this was too disrespectful. Instead, she concentrated on creating works to donate to a charity auction, and then resumed her preparations for the Yokohama show.

But, with so much to be depressed about these days, what is her rationale for creating art that seems to embrace the dark side so strongly? And isn’t she worried that her suicide paintings might actually encourage suicide?

“Yes, I am concerned that some people might get a positive image of suicide,” she confides. “But, basically, I want the audience to see my works in order to help them get rid of the evil from their bodies.”

Looking at the contrast between the artist and her works, one can’t help being reminded of Oscar Wilde’s novella “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” Perhaps Matsui’s paintings serve to expel the ugliness from her own mind and body -- a suggestion she rejects strongly.

“I don’t paint for therapy,” she replies, her beautiful eyes flashing. “My work is never therapeutic!”

The hint of raw emotion in her voice suggests denial, and makes me suspect that I have hit a raw nerve, but, given what she can do to cameras, it’s best to back off and smile nervously.

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Getting there: You can see Fuyuko Matsui’s “Becoming Friends with All the Children in the World” exhibition (¥1,100) at the Yokohama Museum of Art until March 18; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Minatomirai 3-4-1 Nishi-ku, Yokohama 220-0012, Kanagawa Prefecture; +81 (0) 45 221 0300; website.

"Drawings by Matsui Fuyuko" will be held at the Naruyama Gallery from February 2 to 28; 1 p.m.- 7 p.m. #205 Matsuoka Kudan Bldg. 2-2-8 Kudan Minami, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo; Tel/Fax: +81 (0) 3 3264 4871; website.

C.B. Liddell is the Art and Architecture Editor of "Metropolis" magazine, a regular writer on art for "The Japan Times," and the Far Eastern Editor of the "Erotic Review."

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