In the footsteps of Hiroshige

Electric Tokyo by Carl Randall When I was back in London last summer, I came across Carl Randall’s painting, Mr Kitazawa’s Noodle Bar, Tokyo‚ while wandering through the National Portrait Gallery’s BP Portrait Award 2012 exhibition. The way the figures were rendered seemed familiar, and without reading its label, I immediately recognised the black-and-white portrait of forlorn Tokyoites sitting around the counter of a ramen shop as the work of the young British figurative painter.

I first encountered Randall’s portraits at Gallery Inchimaenoe in Ginza, Tokyo, in 2010, which featured works by three fledgling artists, James Jack, Beatriz Inglessis and Randall, at that time fellow doctoral candidates at the Tokyo University of Fine Arts, Japan. Even then I thought his figures were beguiling, sometimes pixie-like and disembodied, and sometimes packed into a single space. At the BP Portrait Award 2012 exhibition, Mr Kitazawa’s Noodle Bar, Tokyo stood out among the more traditional portraits hanging in the gallery walls – typically of lone figures truncated from their contexts – and went on to win the exhibition’s BP Travel Award.

Randall also won the prestigious prize for his proposal to travel the modern-day Tokaido Highway, an Edo-period trading route between Tokyo and Kyoto, and document his experience through his paintings. This was his homage to the great Japanese woodblock print artist Utagawa Hiroshige who embarked on the same sojourn in 1832 and illustrated people and places he encountered in his iconic series, The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido.

Roppongi Nightclub by Carl Randall

A year after winning the BP Travel Award, Randall was recently back again at the National Portrait Gallery, this time with a solo show of his paintings from the award-winning series, In the Footsteps of Hiroshige: Portraits of Modern Japan. A catalogue, Carl Randall: Japan Portraits, accompanied the special exhibition.

Randall received his BA from the Slade School of Fine Art, London, in 1999 and completed a postgraduate drawing course at the Princes Drawing School, London, in 2003. He was awarded the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation Scholarship  in 2003 that enabled him to live and work as an artist in Tokyo. He later received funding from the Japanese Government (MEXT) Postgraduate Scholarship to study at the Tokyo University of Fine Arts, Japan in 2012. He received his MA in 2009 and PhD in Fine Art in 2012.

Why did the National Portrait Gallery select you as their BP Travel Award winner?
I had a good proposal. It was well thought out, had art historical relevance, included modern and old Japan, was related to portraiture, and I guess they thought it was the strongest and most interesting proposal. Anyone who gets into the BP Portrait Award exhibition can apply for the BP Travel Award. More than 2,000 artists applied for the show, 55 got in, and only one was chosen for the travel award, so it’s quite hard to get. My painting Mr Kitazawa’s Noodle Bar, received very, very good response from the public but one doesn’t win the travel award because of the painting you enter alone; it’s also for the written proposal and the idea for the travel project

What inspired your proposal?
They liked the idea of following in the footsteps of a great artist (Hiroshige), and responding to his work and travels in a modern setting. I have lived in Japan for a number of years. I always liked Hiroshige as a child and became aware whilst living in Japan that the Tokaido Highway still exists to a large extent, and can be travelled. I met architects and photographers who have travelled and documented the route, comparing now to then, but I’ve never met a portrait-based artist who had done so. I thought the idea of looking at the route through the eyes of portrait-based painter would be interesting and original.

Shibuya by Carl Randall

Are they imaginary or real places?
It’s a mixture of both. Some are based on real places along the route. Hakone is a real place. I made a painting of a sumo stable in Nagoya and department stores in Yokohama. There are two paintings about Kyoto and Shibuya, the centrepiece, is a real place in Tokyo. But all these places and the design of the pictures have been changed a little, to suit my interest. In Hakone, for example, the Shinkansen (bullet train) doesn’t run straight past the famous red torii gate in the lake, but I put it there, as it suited the design, and also in terms of representing modern Japan, I wanted to get a bullet train into one of my paintings.

Is this a finite project and have you completed the journey?
I thought I’ve completed it once the National Portrait Gallery project deadline was over but I realised that it could be an ongoing project. Hiroshige made 53 prints, based on the 53 stations of the Tokaido Highway; I’d love to do fifty-three.

Tokyo Subway by Carl Randall

How many have you done?
In terms of my small paintings that are the same size as original Hiroshige prints, I’ve only done 14, though a lot of other larger works are based on places in Tokyo. So it could be a project that occupies me for the next few years or so if I want to match the 53 Hiroshige.

Have you received any feedback from Hiroshige experts?
I haven’t spoken to any experts really, but I did have a meeting with the woman who runs the Ando Hiroshige Tokaido Museum in Shizouka, Japan, and they are giving me solo show there, so I guess that means they think the works are good.

Mr Kitazawa's Noodle Shop, Tokyo by Carl Randall

What separates your portraits from the more traditional ones?
The more classical ones in the National Portrait Gallery show perhaps rely on the traditional idea of portraiture being a representation of someone’s appearance, mainly their face, with the head and shoulders occupying most of the canvas. I’m not that type of painter. I think making a painting only of a face and nothing else is one of the hardest things to do and very few painters can do it well. I mean to just paint a head and make it tell a story is difficult, and I guess Lucian Freud achieved this in his portraits, especially the early heads; they tell a story, just through heads.

Why did you decide to provide an environment to the heads?
That’s a difficult question. My main interest is to show people in their environment — giving the environment equal emphasis — and if I’m to analyse it, perhaps I felt that I just wasn’t a good enough painter to be able to just paint one head and make a really interesting image out of it. My pure portraiture isn’t bad though. I think my drawings of survivors of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima are successful.

Tokyo Portrait by Carl Randall

Can you elaborate more about the flattening of perspective in your paintings?
The good thing about being a painter is that you can change or distort anything and I feel that as a painter, things should be changed to some extent. Otherwise why not just take photographs.

Did the “flattening” come from a specific Japanese artistic tradition?
The flattening of space is to create interesting tension between the realistically painted figures with the slightly unreal space. Total realism doesn’t interest me. It’s the balance between the real and unreal that interests me. I distort the space just enough to play with eye and make the viewer feel that something is not quite right, and yet still convincing. The flattening of space can also contribute to making strong composition by looking at the design as a flat pattern rather than an illusion of real space.

Sumo by Carl Randall

How has living in Japan changed your practice?
It’s difficult to say because I don’t know what my paintings would be like if I never went to Japan. I think being in a new environment and separated from what my peers were doing in London was a very positive thing. I was able to create a body of work that looks and feels very different from my peers in London, which I’m pleased about. I think being part of a community of artists can be a good thing but I feel it can also stifle ones work a bit. You can become a bit too aware of what others are doing, and start caring about how your work compares to theirs, and it all becomes a bit too self conscious. Being on the other side of the world for ten years allowed me to develop at my own pace.

by Peter Yeoh

The exhibition will be traveling to Aberdeen Art Gallery (November 2, 2013-1 February 2014), Wolverhampton Art Gallery (March 3 – June 14, 2014), and the Ando Hiroshige Tokaido Museum in Shizuoka, Japan ( June 25 – September 15, 2014). The Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation in London will also be staging a solo show of his works, titled Tokyo Portraits (January 16 – March 12, 2014).


About The Author

Glass Magazine New York and Tokyo editor

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