Born in 1968 in Tokyo, Jiro Osuga grew up in the UK and studied at St Martin’s School of Art in 1986, Chelsea School of Art (1987-90), and the Royal College of Art (1990-92). One day, as a student, he started filling, with exploratory abandon, a huge canvas with observations of what he calls ‘the maddening complexity and richness of the world’ – quotidian images like those of a restaurant and market stalls but also details of the natural world and solar system.
Such urbane elements (often set in Tokyo or London) have since formed an imaginative starting point for many pictures, ranging from large canvases to extensive panel-folding screens as well as hinged panels or canvases which open up. An example of the latter is a monochrome adult self-portrait (fraughtly introspective in appearance); the spectator then unhinges the bifurcated panel to reveal the startlingly colourful apparation of a flawless-faced young boy (The Inner Child II, 2006).
In Osuga’s multiple self-portrait, Crowd (2013), the artist’s image – set against a plain white background – recurs fifteen times or so. Casually attired in a white tee-shirt, pale lilac sweater and what appear to be crumpled grey chinos, the slender, black mop-haired, horn-rimmed-spectacled figure is seen wandering around, rather disconsolately, in each and every direction, once checking his mobile phone, another time viewed from behind (perhaps hunched over the same mobile), once peering up blankly into space, and twice with looks of glazed melancholy. In one figure, the Adam’s Apple is prominent; in others we see an incipient moustache. The world’s maddening agitation is subverted here with quite comic surreality as an urban crowd is transformed into a plethora of alienated Osuga-selves, each somewhat different in attitude and posture but each still a pronounced version of the same, complex-seeming individual.
|In 2015, Osuga wrote: ‘Images with a multiplicity of selves have been appearing my work over many years. In the majority of cases, they simply reflect my fascination with the medieval convention of representing a sequence of events simultaneously within a single frame. Crowd, however, delves deeper. By replacing all the faces in the crowd with my own features, it speculates on what it might be like if you could become other people. Would you attain a heightened state of human compassion, since you are putting yourself in the shoes of others and viewing the world from their perspective? Or would you be very lonely, the equivalent of being the only person left alive on the planet? The painting doesn’t pretend to have the answers. I guess it reflects the deep anxieties that I have always felt about myself and how I relate to other people.
‘Unusually for me, with Crowd, I took the trouble of looking into a mirror and made use of photographs to depict rear views and other angles you cannot see in a mirror. I felt it was important to paint relatively naturalistically in order to reflect the inner life that outward appearances reflect. The composition was designed to read like an endless pattern that carries on beyond the edge of the canvas. The top third of the composition is artificially tilted upwards in order to make the figures at the rear visible above the heads of those in the foreground.
‘Self-portraits appear with unusual frequency in my paintings. They crop up in all sorts of places: in paintings set in a supermarket, in the streets riding a bicycle, or ensconced in the studio. More often or not they are little more than caricatures – figures with just a passing resemblance to me, suggested by a pair of glasses and a mop of black hair. I find it hard to explain this personal omnipresence in my art. This presence has become so ingrained I have ceased to think about it. Could it just be that all my work is ultimately based on my own life, and I tend to figure quite large in my own life?’
Multitude, the multiple self-portrait that Osuga painted immediately after Crowd, explores the artist’s perplexities about self ‘from a slightly different angle’. In a bustling London street, every visage – a mother’s with a pram, even the faces of the little girl on her arm and the baby in her pram; the scaffolders’ working on a building; a white van driver’s; a passenger’s in a shiny blue car; passengers’ too on the upper deck of a red London bus (as well as the face in the huge advert on the vehicle’s side), etc. – is Osuga’s, peering at the viewer with undiluted alarm. This is lucidly observed urban realism at its most intimately hallucinatory and uncanny.
Purchased from the 2013 Ruth Borchard Self-Portrait competition.