JAPANESE ARTIST Izumi Kato's surreal paintings and sculptures, which he paints directly by hand while wearing vinyl gloves, have made him a creative figure of international significance.
A selection of 18 of his works is now on display at Galerie Perrotin's Hong Kong space in an exhibition simply titled "Izumi Kato".
Over coffee and Japanese cake that he has brought as omiage (a gift) to share, the 47-year-old artist explains that although he graduated from the Department of Oil Painting at Tokyo's prestigious Musashino Art University in 1992, he was not naturally drawn to art or interested in painting at an early age.
"I wanted to be an athlete, but I wasn't good enough. My academic grades were not too good either so I decided on art instead. It was the easiest way to gain entrance to university," he says.
The lure of city life was also a key factor in deciding to study at the Tokyo institution. "I was born in Shimane prefecture which is on the far western coast of Japan. It is beautiful and natural but very quiet," he says.
The decision to move to the capital proved fortuitous, although Kato says the art course taught him "very little". After graduating, he spent the next few years working on construction sites.
But it was the prospect of turning 30 that made him reconsider his future. "It occurred to me that others could do a better job in construction but not everyone can create art," he says. "I wanted to be serious about my life and decided to go back to painting and see if I really did have a talent for it." Lucky for the art world, I say. "Lucky for all of us," says Kato.
The artist's skill is certainly on display in his first solo exhibition in Hong Kong. Viewers are treated to a selection of his enigmatic works, which include rough wooden ethnographic sculptures and paintings of bipedal beings that evoke a primordial sense of ancient Egypt, tribal Africa and the extraterrestrial.
The undisputed highlight of the show is an intriguing wood sculpture of an almost life-sized, imposing female figure curled in a fetal position, resting on a bare iron bed frame. Plants sprout out of her mouth and pubis, while her eyes have been painted blue and decorated with stones bestowing her with a multi-pupil gaze.
There are six other much smaller sculptures , but this reclining form dominates the space and is the most seductive due to its sheer scale and the figure's striking red hair. The untitled piece, first exhibited in 2010 at Japan's Hakone Open-Air Museum, in Kanagawa prefecture, is typical of Kato's eerie, vulnerable-looking sculptures, which are often not self standing, and which he presents in an almost casual manner, unceremoniously stacked in a pile.
While interested in the potential that sculpture offers him to experiment with three-dimensional forms, Kato says he "feels more for paintings".
"Sculptures help me make better pictures. For example, I first showed shapes growing out of my sculptures because it worked well in that form. Now I've taken that concept into my paintings, which is why you see forms growing out of their heads."
Kato likens his creative process to sports. "I work in short intense bursts of energy for about one or two hours a day. It's almost like a sports activity. When I am making the painting it is very exciting, like running a race.
"Painting challenges the world. It is an unnatural form that has been singled out from our current three-dimensional living space. There is nothing strange about sculpture in our world, but painting is different. We search for another world in it," he says.
With the exception of two sculptures, all the artworks are being exhibited here for the first time. They are showcased to maximum visual effect in the gallery's main space, a minimalist white room. Four large canvases depict primitive-looking human shapes, two of which are in portrait form. The imposing but serene faces, with simple graphic forms and strong colours feature Kato's use of negative space that strips the image of context. Strong angular features and smoky grey eyes exude a child-like innocence.
There is also a collection of smaller paintings with totemic figures reminiscent of fetuses and mother figures. "There are a lot of other art mediums, like video, but for me paintings and sculpture are more complex," he says.
Don't be fooled by the apparent simplicity of the art. Kato's skilled fusion of primordial figurative images and elegant austerity never strays close to becoming too cute or cartoon-like, retaining a sense of ambiguity that the artist perpetuates by leaving the pieces untitled.
"I prefer viewers to develop their own views and not be influenced by me," he says. "It is completely up to the viewers. Beauty is very personal and subjective. What I think is not relevant."
Ancient art from his birthplace has been key to Kato's artistic aesthetic. "Shimane is very close to the sea and mountains and where I was born is one of the oldest shrines in Japan. It is beautiful and has been very important for me."
But the artist is quick to stress that the fact he applies paint with his hands does not embody a special spiritual significance. "I use my hands like a tool: it helps me feel physically, not emotionally, closer. I like the way the paint feels on the canvas and it is easier to achieve what I want.
"I usually have an image in mind that I want to create but as I work on it my thinking changes so it evolves as I paint. I try not to spend too much time thinking about it. I just want to get on with it."
Izumi Kato, Galerie Perrotin, 17/F, 50 Connaught Road Central, Central, Tuesday-Saturday 11am-7pm. Ends March 15. Inquiries: 3758 2180