By day he runs a tempura restaurant on Sawtelle. By night he’s a painter of fantastical scenes worthy of a new exhibit at the Japan Foundation called "Migrating Dreamscapes."
His name is Nobuo Anzai, and his working past is a telescope through which he views his distant childhood. He was born in Japan in 1935. For over 30 years, he worked as a field laborer, small businessman, and restaurateur. At the same time, he became a singular primitivist painter, developing a bold technique and a broad iconography of distant-memory objects … images meaningful to his creative unconscious—morning glories in full bloom and marmalade cats; canned goods and kites; Iberian bulls and flying persimmons.
We told you it was fantastical.
Anzai says that to him, art is “a painted testimonial” that documents “the depth and movement of the heart and soul.” In his case, that movement is often between his Japanese childhood and his subsequent life and labors in Brazil, Colombia, Spain and, ultimately, California.
Anzai’s paintings at the Japan Foundation fall into two categories and two periods. There’s relatively realistic earlier work showing Colombian street vendors selling beans, chicharones, and native crafts. And in their flat perspectives and vivid Latin American colors, you can also see his developing surrealism.
But what overwhelms you are the nine paintings from the 1990s to today, set in his homeland, Japan’s Fukushima Prefecture, which endured nuclear disaster after the tsunami of 2011.
Anzai’s imagined Fukushima is a bucolic but tumultuous place, blending early memory with high jumps of imagination. His first painting shows busy preparations for a feast: pots are simmering, women are chopping up cucumbers, festive goldfish flags fly, a dog on the porch growls at everyone, and in the back yard, a fat lady in a hot tub is supervised by a marmalade cat. While over a distant green hill, the head of a titanic samurai mysteriously peers down on the proceedings.
Anzai confesses these paintings reflect imaginings of his childhood during World War 2. Nostalgia, he says, is “the beating heart resonating from memories of the Homeland.”
Another picture commemorates the harvest of silk-worm cocoons — but centers on a weaver, transforming silk to cloth, while varicolored rolls of this same fabric unfurl and skirmish in the dark sky. Again, the past is fantasized, played with, elaborated upon, made both real and surreal.
The most stunning of the pictures evokes a typical Asian painting subject -- people staring at the moon. But in Anzai’s version, the viewers are all looking away from the heavens, which actually contain two moons … and, high in the sky, Planet Earth itself, turned to show the islands of Japan. It’s surrounded by a multicolored ribbon and surmounted by a cosmic bento box. Nobody sees it except for an excited little rabbit.
And, at 82, Anzai keeps working. He paints on the streets of Los Angeles, using muted colors. I think he uses coffee for his browns. And he’s working his day job at his Tempura House restaurant on Sawtelle. I wonder if his cuisine is as interesting as his fabulous paintings.
"Migrating Dreamscapes," by Nobuo Anzai is up through February 6 at the Japan Foundation in the Miracle Mile.