Using beautiful girl figures and toys as motifs, Manami Azuma traps time on canvas through the movement of rotation. Combining the simple and classic painting theme of time, the painting technique of oil painting, and beautiful girl figures that symbolize a part of the contemporary Japanese culture, Azuma’s works straightforwardly show the wide repertoire of the painting medium and the possibilities of painting in the modern age. In this interview, we talked to Azuma about the background of his work and his career to date.
You have been creating paintings that suggest time and movement, using rotated figures of beautiful girls as motifs, but there is also a sense of Western trends such as Futurism in your themes. Could you tell us about your current works?
Since I was a student, I have always wanted to confine movement in my paintings, and at first I was trying to capture blurring and shaking. At the time, I used toys rather than figures, or real merry-go-rounds photographed with long exposures, as the basis for my paintings.
However, what I was painting at the time was more of an abstract painting. I couldn’t express myself fully with the concept I had in mind, partly due to my lack of skill, so I was quite lost. In the midst of this, I was experimenting with the idea of expressing rotation in the form of stop motion animation, and since I am a fan of anime and manga, I thought, “Why not rotate the figures and use that as a motif? So I thought, “Why not rotate the figures and use that as a motif? I thought I could express the rotation as the flow of time from the past to the future by changing the modern motifs to what the Cubists and Futurists were doing, not just the visible physical rotation.
I was a little surprised to hear that you used to draw abstract paintings.
It may seem surprising given my current style (laughs). (laughs) This is my own problem, or rather, it is rooted in my own complex. I’m really bad at drawing (laughs). Anyway, I’m not very good at drawing. From high school prep school to the early days of college, I tried to take up painting seriously, but I still couldn’t draw. I have no idea how to paint oil paintings. The people around me enjoy painting and seem to enjoy facing a clean canvas. But I couldn’t do that, and I liked working with colors, so in a way I chose abstraction as a place to escape. In the end, it was difficult to do that too (laughs).
MERRY GO ROUND (Twintails)
29.7 x 42cm, Giclee printing on paper, edition:50
Now you are working on figurative paintings. It’s the exact opposite direction, isn’t it?
I think the turning point for me was arriving at my current production method. It’s almost like a kind of liberation. Now, I put the figure as a motif on the turntable, rotate it, take a picture of it, synthesize it on the computer, and incorporate it into the painting. In other words, by defining what to draw first, I avoided questions such as “What should I draw? In other words, by defining what to draw first, I avoided the question, “What should I draw? Realizing this point was a great discovery for someone like me to make in painting.
Do you think that painting after you have established the concept and motifs has a meaning of separating your own taste and feelings?
There may be…or rather, there is. To begin with, I’m not very good at self-expression. I’m not the type of person who can draw without a track. I’m a very serious person, too serious for that. It’s because I can’t draw freely that I design and draw carefully. Lately I’ve been thinking that’s good too. There’s something to be said for emotional and narrative works, but in my case, I think it’s about eliminating the self to the extreme and pursuing pure form to the extreme. I use figures that are as far removed from my own interests as possible. I want to prevent my own hobbies and emotions from getting mixed in, so I really want to focus on the figurative aspect of figures in the purest sense. I want to focus on the purely figurative nature of the figures. Ultimately, I think it’s fine if people look at my work and think it’s interesting.
I don’t know if this is an unpleasant thing to say, but in the case of your neatly sculpted works, isn’t it difficult to draw a line between digital and actual painting? I feel that one of the lifelines of your works is the fact that they are paintings using oil.
It is true that people may think, “Why not just use computer graphics?” But I think the traces of brushstrokes and hand-painting when you see the real thing are also an element of interest. I think that is the reason why I continue to paint in oil. I still like the materiality of painting, and I think that the distinction between illustration and painting is based on whether or not one is particular about the material.
Installation view from MASATAKA contemporary
Another aspect that I am particular about is the concept. You are trying to capture time and movement on a flat surface. When did this idea start?
Maybe it’s rooted in my personal nature; I can’t stand the way things deteriorate. I can’t stand the idea of things getting old or dirty. Some people get attached to old things, and with leather goods, you can feel the love as you use them, but for me, things are at their peak when they are brand new out of the bag, and I want to keep them that way. It’s too painful for them to get scratched or dirty. That’s why I always use new figures for my motifs, but recently I’ve been trying to confine them by making them into paintings.
Could you tell us about your background in painting? Did you start looking at paintings or start painting when you were little?
It wasn’t until I entered university that I started looking at art in earnest, or rather with an awareness of its history, but I started drawing much earlier. In fact, my mother was a manga artist, though for a very short time, from when I was in high school until she gave birth to me.
Maybe that’s why I always thought, “I have to become a cartoonist eventually. It wasn’t something I was forced to do, nor was there any other reason, but I had this vague idea. So I’ve been drawing manga ever since I was a child, but it wasn’t at the level of submissions or publication in magazines, it was more of a hobby. But along the way, I naturally realized that I didn’t really want to draw comics, and that what I wanted to do was draw pictures.
In terms of quoting figures in your paintings, even if not in their original form, you can feel the background of the subculture. Were you aware of the painting scene at the time?
Yes, I was aware of the trend of paintings quoting manga and anime, but in my case, it was more personal. I couldn’t paint on a blank canvas, so I had to prepare a blueprint, and I decided to use a familiar figure as a motif. So rather than being conscious of the context of contemporary art, I think this is an extension of my natural interaction with painting.
What do you feel as you have been working and what do you think about your own work?
I often think about my work, but lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the activity itself. Especially about continuing my activities. This is because everyone stops drawing after they graduate from university. Even if they continue, they stop. I think this is unavoidable due to individual circumstances, but when I was a student, we all drew in the same studio and worked together in friendly competition. But nowadays, I draw alone, and the number of artists in my class is decreasing.
As I mentioned earlier, I don’t think I’m suited to be an artist. I’m serious, I can’t draw without a blueprint, and I don’t have a particularly unusual background from growing up in a normal family. There are many people around me who enjoy drawing more and are more suited to being an artist, but they quit for various reasons, and somehow I am the only one left. I think it’s a very strange situation. Maybe that’s why I’m so determined. That’s one word for determination (laughs). (laughs) I thought, “I’ll just keep going. I’ve always been bad at drawing, but I went to graduate school and kept going. I don’t know what lies ahead, but there may be something for me if I continue to draw. Drawing is one thing, but continuing to draw is probably a lonelier battle.
Born in Yokohama City, Kanagawa Prefecture in 1988, she received her MFA in Fine Arts from Joshibi University of Art and Design in 2013. She was awarded the Ichiro Fukuzawa Prize in 2013. Major exhibitions include “Meklichkeit 4” at Roentgenwerke (2013), “Future Exhibition” at Nichido Gallery (2016), and “ICON” at MASATAKA CONTEMPORARY (2019). In addition, he has exhibited at many art fairs in New York and Hong Kong.