If the purpose of art, as John Cheever once observed, is to impose order on chaos, Taiyo La Paix may have been saved by the act of putting brush to canvas.
The son of an American mother and a Japanese father, the 39-year-old artist, who moved to the Asheville area ten years ago, grew up in Kyoto, Japan, where his parents settled when he was three years old. “I spent much of my childhood getting the crap beaten out of me, because I looked white,” Taiyo says of his tumultuous 11 years in Kyoto. “I had to learn early to be a tough fighter, but I also had the priceless experience of knowing what it’s like to be an outsider and to be empathetic to the feelings of others.”
Japanese manga and anime proved to be both escapes and powerful influences on Taiyo’s artistic future, evident in the ten new drawings he produced for “Storyline: Narrative Works On Paper,” a group show now on display at Asheville’s Blue Spiral 1 until September 30.
Leaving his parents and Japan in 1986, when he was 14, Taiyo made his way alone to the United States to study art, particularly the abstract expressionists, while attending Phillips Academy and Middlebury College in New England (though Taiyo considers himself a self-taught artist with a fondness for underground alt-art, and commercial illustrators like Rene Gruau and Erich Sokol, who drew buxom ladies for Playboy). But it’s the Asian influence that makes Taiyo’s work a unique blend of a Pop Art sensibility with the graceful and delicate lines of traditional eastern forms. “I feel like I’m doing my own thing with little regard to trends or traditions, but given my circumstances, I guess it’s inevitable that I’m a combined product of Asian culture and low-brow art,” Taiyo says.
Mere technical proficiency, however, would not have led major exhibition venues like Art Basel Miami and the Asheville Art Museum to seek out his work, whose narrative structure has literally taken on a life of its own in a recurring character of his own invention, the playful, freckled, liberated and amply endowed Papillia La Paix, who first appeared in his work in 1995.
Taiyo first began to exhibit his work professionally 12 years later, rescuing him from another difficult time in his life — so difficult that he declines to discuss the specifics, even at a distance of 15 years. “It was a truly draining, frightening time of suffering that isolated me from friendship or dating for ten years,” Taiyo says. “In stolen moments, my mind would wander to a place far away, where I saw palm trees swaying in the breeze, a fun, stylish world inhabited only by kind people, and in the center of it all, Papillia.”
Romping through a sunny, carefree world bearing resemblances to tourist pamphlets of Los Angeles or Miami, Papillia’s story has grown over the years, even serving during those difficult times, Taiyo says, as a kind if inner guide for him. “When I was angry at people, she would plead with me to be patient and forgiving. When I lost faith in myself, she made me believe in myself again. Papilla and her world embody everything that is good in us, everything that we aspire to.”
Taiyo was so taken with her that he took her surname as his own nom de brosse, and gave Papillia a profession. “She’s a writer,” Taiyo explains, the reason for his (that is, her) “Twinkle” series modeled on the Barbarella comics of Jean-Claude Forest. Taiyo’s playful movie poster drawings feature Papillia in the starring role of the film adaptations of her Twinkle books. “They’re important drawings to me because they tell a little bit of Papillia’s inner world and literary talents,” Taiyo says. Papillia is frequently accompanied in her frolics by a male companion bearing more than a passing resemblance to Taiyo himself, right down to the Harley that is one of Taiyo’s own prized possessions.
While Taiyo’s work is justly admired for its compositional integrity, delicate coloring and attention to detail, not all viewers are comfortable, given Papillia’s sensuousness, with its erotic content. She and her boyfriend are freely and openly sexually exuberant in some of the works; in others, Papillia makes no apologies for her generously displayed form. “I’ve had some backlash because of that,” Taiyo says, “and I realize it’s not for everyone. But I think that most of the time, when someone is threatened by something, it’s because they’re not good at it. I have insecurities like anyone else, and I certainly sympathize, but I think it’s unfair and mean to turn our insecurities into hatred. People who don’t like the erotic nature of some of my work don’t need to look at it.”
Ahead for Taiyo are a group show at Tryon’s Upstairs Art Space in the fall, and an exhibit called “Waking Up With Van Gogh” at the Hickory Museum of Art early next year. “I’d love to find a venue for my art in bigger cities,” Taiyo says. “And I’d like to make art that is a little less escapist, art that tries to come to terms with the real suffering in my life which could hopefully reach out to others who have suffered.” But with the ten drawings for the Blue Spiral show just recently completed, other more immediate activities beckon. “Right now,” Taiyo points out, “I’m going to ride my Harley to the beach.”I