The Skulls of Toru Kamei

Tokyo, Japan seems an unlikely birthplace for the artist behind these paintings.  They exhibit nothing of traditional Japanese art.  Yet that is precisely where Toru Kamei is from.  Born in Tokyo in 1976, he graduated from the Nihon University College of Art, and has exhibited and worked almost exclusively in Japan since then, in galleries such as the Naruyama and Gyokei.

His paintings are an eerie amalgamation of surrealism and 16th century vanitas styles, interspersed in some cases with mythological elements.  Skulls and skeletons, flowers and fruit, butterflies, and eyeballs are all common elements in his work, bringing to mind not only the traditional narratives of vanitas art, such as the fragility of life, but also evoking a sense of the connection between death and eroticism, and the possible workings of some mysterious magic in the background.  I am reminded of both the paintings of Victor Brauner and the writing of Georges Bataille, as well as Salvador Dali’s famous quote concerning the arousal of the erotic in every moment of life.  At the same time, I am left feeling strangely empty and somber.  Depressed.  Beauty and passion are only real because of their juxtaposition with death.  All beauty is ephemeral, destined to an eternity of darkness.  A spark.  His use of mythological human and animal hybrids seems to suggest that our everyday lives are the real myth.

He has carefully crafted paintings that eliminate any concrete references to specific cultures, times or places.  They therefore have a much broader and timeless appeal.  They reference only those things we all share as uniquely human, giving rise to a very melancholy and haunting quality.  His skulls sometimes have flowers for eyes, while the flowers sometimes have human eyeballs instead.  His flowers are flesh tones, pinks and whites and reds.  His fruits are pitted, bruised, and flesh-like.  He seems to suggest that we are all essentially the same soft, fleshy, fragile elements of nature, that we are flowers conscious of our destiny.

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