Distillation: Paintings by Ken Matsubara


“When the ability to express emotion was acquired, that is when man became human.

I would like to get back to this starting point. 

If my paintings strike a sympathetic chord with, and awaken nostalgia in the back of 

a viewer’s mind, it will be my pleasure as an artist.”  

 Ken Matsubara


The upthrusting of the ground, flowing water, steaming air currents.

The natural phenomena of the Earth appear chaotic but possess an order and it is this expression of life that Ken Matsubara captures in his paintings.  

Matsubara always paints out of doors.  Whether it be the oppressive heat of summer or the frigid cold of winter, he says he likes to be able to see the colors in natural daylight.  He travels deep into the mountains in the search of his materials and choosing only the finest-grained earths that he carefully decocts to produce pigments for his work.  Using a brush to apply a thick line, he then sprays it with water, allowing it to flow until the pigments create a fluid shape that resembles terrain that has been eroded by the rain.  What finally remains on the canvas is a looming image of nature resembling a mountain valley.

This is the way in which his ‘Mt. Fuji’ pictures in the ‘Landscape’ series were born. 


His works can be seen in the Hotel Okura and many other hotels or public facilities across Japan.  Within the space and time that transforms according to the Japan's four seasons, his works continue to coexist quietly with people.  This is no doubt due to the techniques employed by Matsubara to commit himself to nature through the creation of his works, methods that remove impurities, leaving a pure distillation of the image.  It is these gentle yet severe laws of nature that awaken our memories and echo in our souls.  

Shoko Aono


Press release

Ippodo gallery is pleased to announce - Distillation - Japanese painter Ken Matsubara’s solo exhibition which opens on May 12. Ken Matsubara (b. 1948) is a Japanese painter. He was born in Kamiimachi, Toyama Prefecture, Japan. The Toyama is close to the Japanese Alps, so he has been surrounded by mountains since he was born. Now he spends his time using earth from the outdoors to recreate nature indoors, living and working in Nasu, Tochigi prefecture.


“When memory and reality combine, the seeds overflow and scenery is born,” says Matsubara. Deeply treasuring his relationship with the natural world, Matsubara travels through the mountains and plains of the Nasu district to collect materials infused in his work. The artist grinds his own pigments from the earth, sourcing different colors of soil to mix with charcoal and bengala, a red iron oxide. The technique is systematic but the result is serene, and his valley​ and mountain paintings blend pleasantly in a variety of settings.  

With a playful smirk on his face and a skullcap on his head, Matsubara methodically sources materials outdoors, grinds pigments by hand, and prepares his washed canvasses. Although he uses brushes to gesso and glue the canvasses, the subject matter only evolves with spritzes of water, allowing the grit of the dirt-based pigments to stick to the glue in a natural formation.


When ​Matsubara had a chance to fly over Mount Fuji and view the mountain from above, he felt profoundly that the mountains ​we​re sculpted by water, so he paints them using only careful direction of fluid. The result mimics nature itself, like lines in the soil from a river, or rings and bark breaks on a tree. He almost always paints outside during the daytime, to bask in the light of the sun and view the paintings in their purest form.


In the summer, Japan’s climate is hot and humid. Matsubara's works with bright sun, thriving on​ ​his own energized spirit​​ as well. When snow falls on white-capped mountains, the landscape is quiet, with just the sound of ice melting. Air is brisk, and while the climate is harder when working with water, Matsubara's spirit is purified. His work changes depending on the season. 


The simplicity of the line nevertheless has a contemporary feel, evoking the minimalistic calligraphic work often seen in other artistic movements. On the one hand, the work is incredibly unique in subject and media, yet the universality of the line on the other compels viewers previously unfamiliar with Matsubara’s innovative style.


Matsubara has shown extensively in Japan, but rarely outside his home country. This is first exhibition in the United States, and the first abroad since his 2006 Exhibition of Ken Matsubara, which toured Paris and Cologne. 


Ippodo Gallery has been actively seeking artists who depict nature through unusual methods, making powerful statements about the awe-inspiring beauty and sometimes danger that nature can bring humanity. This aesthetic appreciation for the natural world manifests with inspired living artists, and proves to be an exciting development for the direction of contemporary Japanese art overall.