Yoshio Kitayama

Icon and Universe

Yoshio Kitayama started a series of large-scale monochrome paintings on Japanese paper in 1997.  They are categorized into two types: Icon and Universe.

Icon shows enlarged human figures drawn from little clay dolls he makes in advance. The images show the different levels of interplay and the relationship between the figures that represent not only human beings but also nations, races and societies. One can find various universal themes related to contemporary issues here. Discovery of a Moment and The Dead Create History deal with violence and the lust for conquest that has caused wars and massacres throughout human history. Why We Had to Create God focuses on religions, and the relationship between God and mankind. The three works Violence, Domination and Plunder are about exploitation by various powers performed between man and woman, nations, races and religions. My Mother is Dead is Kitayama’s version of Shaka-nehanzu, a Nirvana painting, which shows the dying Buddha lying in Nirvana, but he connected it with the personal relationship with his mother.

The backgrounds of these paintings are completely blank while the figures are three-dimensional. Therefore the figures seem to be floating in total emptiness. Kitayama points out his paintings lack the perspective used in Western paintings that have the illusion of three-dimensional space. He says the blank represents the concept of K? (“Emptiness” or “Void”) in Buddhism. This metaphysical space in the background tells us about the truth of where we stand; everything one encounters in life is empty of absolute identity or permanence.

In the Universe series, the artist’s numerous and meticulous touches in black ink create a series of phenomenal pictures of the universe, which can be compared to the mandala in Buddhism. The work has images of the cosmos as well as “a representation of the unconscious self” as Carl Jung commented on mandalas. The viewer becomes mesmerized and caught up with the idea of the enormous amounts of time and space found in the macro and micro cosmos represented in the picture. Here, the artist tries to reach the origin of the world. He says, “…the endless chain of life have never been cut since the Big Bang. I’m also part of that chain and such a form of life exists in my body. It’s our marvelous ability to imagine the infinite universe and the endless stream of lives coming from the cosmos over zillions of years… I created these paintings with such an imagination… they also contain the concept of reincarnation that we will come back to the stream of lives and be born again as part of the universe… life and death are united there…”

Kitayama also points out an element in his work which is associated with the history of painting in Asian countries, especially Sansui-ga (“monochrome landscape paintings”), that shows multitudinous gods in the landscape. His painting succeeds in the tradition of Sansui-ga, he says. With two types of black and white paintings, Kitayama presents questions about life and death, the link of Life with universal energy, identity of human beings and the “self.”

Yoshio Kitayama was born in 1948 in Shiga Prefecture, Japan. His sculptures and paintings have been presented in international venues including the 40th Venezia Biennale, the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh, the Asian Art Biennale, Bangladesh and the Triennale India. He lives and works in Kyoto.


December 4 – 22, 2007

“New works”
Jan. 23 – Feb. 20, 2010

“Early works”
Feb. 27 – Mar. 27, 2010


“Picture of living/dying”
Mar. 17 – Apr. 15, 2012

“universe” works
Oct. 18 – Nov. 16, 2014

May. 18 – Jun. 23, 2019


Further readings