Takayoshi Sakabe

When invited to exhibit at an upscale gallery in a major cosmopolitan capital, most painters attend the opening to sip wine, shake hands with adoring fans and unveil the deep, hidden meanings of their projects.

Not Takayoshi Sakabe. At the Beirut debut of his recent work, hosted by the Alice Mogabgab Gallery in Achrafieh on February 24, the Japanese painter opted to perform “Butoh” for all in attendance. First developed in the 1950s, the dance is known in Asia for its bizarre movements, which can border on the grotesque. Wrapped in bandages like a mummy, his face pained white, Sakabe moved to music steeped in the sounds of nature, reflecting the elements depicted in his art. 

For nearly 30 minutes, guests watched as Sakabe moved at an acutely slow pace across the gallery floor. It is said that when Sakabe does “Butho”, it allows him to reach another state of mind - the very same state he’s in when he paints. 
Using mostly oil on canvas, the Japanese native, who lives between Istanbul and Tokyo, depicts neither abstract nor ethereal subjects. He focuses instead on the natural world, recreating monkeys, twisted branches and even human body parts. Sakabe also goes to great lengths to use very little paint, economizing each brush stroke, so that at times the canvas actually shows through.

Shaped primarily with a palate of earthy beiges and browns, walking into a room full of Sakabe's paintings instantly melts away any stress incurred from Beirut’s bustling streets. If he uses stronger hues at all, it's extremely understated: a green leaf, a flash of purple on a sumo wrestler's belt, or a few gold flecks in a horse’s mane. Nonetheless, his controlled style produces unexpected effects. When gazing at his painting, “Arbres”, for instance, the mist appears to flow off the canvas.

One of Sakabe’s most celebrated works, however, contains no vibrant colors at all. 

Cheval portrays a boy fighting off a horse. Both the boy and the horse reflect figures of the classical era, but as the gallery owners explain, the piece is also infused with Japanese style, because, if you look closely, you will see the very miniature details that went into the painting, filled with tiny brushstrokes and exact lines.

It is surprising, then, to come upon several paintings, such as “Gebriel”, where Sakabe has clearly allowed paint to drip down the canvas, defying his stereotypical Japanese exactitude. This could be a reference to traditional Oriental ideology that life is vanity, and that time, no matter how hard we try to hold on to it, is fleeting.
The exhibit features about 15 paintings and will run until March 19. For more information, visit the gallery’s website.