Eugene Weekly : Visual Arts : 2.21.08

Open, Yet Unbroken
Kazuaki Tanahashi’s work at White Lotus enchants, inspires

 Top to Bottom: Miracles of Each Moment (blue), Compassion, Enjoyment, Miracles of Each Moment (red) and One

Can an artist simultaneously honor hundreds of years of tradition and create something that breaks tradition?

Calligrapher Kazuaki Tanahashi would likely say yes. Tanahashi, whose “Brush Mind” exhibit opened at White Lotus on Valentine’s Day, mixes traditional methods and Zen Buddhist iconography to create work at once calming and intense.

At the gallery, it’s easy to see three distinctly different tracks emerge even though Tanahashi paints each piece on manageably sized canvas with a single acrlyic figure. One track, the least interesting, involves massive single brushstrokes across the bottom half or third of the parchment canvases. The strokes incorporate a variety of colors — orange and red, or blue and green with some yellow mixed in, for instance — and run off both sides of the paper. Tanahashi gives many of his similar paintings the same name, in this case, Happiness. The red Happiness at the gallery contains more playful brushwork, a more complex terrain for thought, than the orange painting with the same title.

Another path Tanahashi follows is that of calligraphic ideograms. In countries that use ideograms to communicate, calligraphy artists work hard. They study for many years in order to master the movements, the balance and the insight necessary to create stunning, perfectly centered ideograms on bare backgrounds. Tanahashi was born in Japan and spent many years laboring and loving his art before moving to the U.S. in 1977, and his work slyly mixes the old country and the new. Compassion, for instance, combines a wide, airy base with a more compressed peak, where a streak of gold enters the dark paint, and Enjoyment‘s bright red tangles teeter atop a playful combination of more solid strokes.

But there are also figures like One, a one-stroke work, which leap out with their powerful play of white movement on black backgrounds. At the rear of the gallery, One is paired with an explosion of white in Mystery, a lovely hanging decision. Part of the reason these white-on-black pieces jump out is, of course, the value of negative on positive, but it’s also a very Zen acceptance of what comes with large strokes of paint — splatters. Tanahashi’s splatters combine spontaneity and the awareness of deeply ingrained patterns; the arc of the white drops look like the follow-through of a basketball player’s hand after she shoots the ball. In other words, they’re both unique and a result of hours of repeated practice.

Those hours, the repeated movement and the controlled nature of this powerful gesture, emerge as the melding of tradition and invention with Tanahashi’s Zen circles. Traditionally, these circles — or Enso — would be painted in a single stroke, often one a day, with black paint on a white background. The style of an artist reveals his or her state of mind at the time of the painting. Circles can be open or closed, as the artist desires; an open circle might represent something quite different, spiritually speaking, from a closed circle. But the circles have almost always been black.

Tanahashi’s circles don’t know the word “black.” There’s one called Metal that shines gold, silver and metallic blue. A red circle — titled, like most of them, Miracles of Each Moment — leaps from white paper. And a bright blue, purple and green circle particularly disturbed White Lotus owner Hue-Ping Lin at first. Then she heard the artist speak at the Eugene Zendo, where he explained why he opened the tradition to new ways of thinking. Lin told me that Tanahashi discussed the combination of discipline and freedom. Indeed, not only his many Miracles but also his leaping, squirming fish-like half-circle, Light Within, provide glorious examples of this melding.

Most of Tanahashi’s paintings glow with exuberance and flexibility, discipline and joy, care in preparation and freedom in execution. Take your time with this show; you might think you understand it all at first glance, but a bit of meditation and contemplation can bring deeper rewards.

“Brush Mind” runs through March 4 at White Lotus Gallery, 767 Willamette, open 10 am to 5:30 pm Tues. through Sat. Tanahashi’s website ( has more info about his practice, translation of Zen works and his work for peace.