WAKO Shuji (b.1953) makes the most gorgeous, lush, pristine, meticulously printed lithographs I have ever seen. This is still a bit surprising to me. I visited his home one morning and we had coffee, sitting at his kitchen table, which was strewn with bottles of cooking oil and soy sauce and some type of vinegar, I asked him where he printed his artwork. “Well, right here,” he said, gesturing towards the kitchen table’s surface. “I mean, not the large ones, but all the smaller editions I can print right here, without leaving the apartment.” It seemed impossible, given that the first adjective that anyone uses for his lithographs is "perfect".
The artist says that he is trying to show traditional Japan through his contemporary eyes. The sumptuous fabrics that appear in many of his pieces, draped over some sort of object always obscured from our view, relate to traditional symbolism. One such design element is the Genji-mon, or the 54 crests, each one associated with a different chapter of the Tale of Genji, written by Lady Murasaki Shikibu in the early 11th century and considered by many to be the world’s first novel. The crests, also called Genji-kô ("Genji incense"), were apparently first derived from one of the traditional incense contests in which participants burned combinations of five primary scents from 25 different packets, each marked with a unique symbol. (Each of the 54 Genji-mon are composed of five primary vertical stems with different arrangements of one or more upper horizontal cross bars.) Whoever could correctly distinguish the largest number of incense fragrances was the winner.
Another source of inspiration is the world of puzzles- MC Escher is one of Wako’s favorite artists, and, like Escher, Wako is fascinated with mathematical impossibilities and the boundaries of the real world as our eyes perceive it.
His flawless printing technique was honed by printing for legendary lithographer HARA Takeshi, his mentor at Zokei University in Tokyo. Wako studied lithography with Hara and was honored when his teacher asked him to print his editions after he graduated in 1977. Hara thought highly enough of his former student to introduce him to our gallery in the mid 1980s. In turn, we were so impressed by Wako’s lavish use of color and striking images, combining modernity with the past that for over thirty years he has been under exclusive contract to the Tolman Collection of Tokyo. The meticulousness of his craft and his own perfectionism have resulted in an extremely limited body of work. We were not the only ones to be impressed by his imagery and craftmanship: Wako's work has been purchased for addition to the stellar collections of The British Museum, The Rockefeller Foundation, The Singapore National Museum, The Library of Congress, The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, to name but a few.
Now that he is over 65, Wako has been taking full advantage of travel discounts offered to senior citizens and enjoys his excursions all over the country, never failing to bring us back an amulet, or a local delicacy, along with whatever lore he has gleaned from his most recent outing.