In Ghostly Japan

Daniel Truscott dances with destiny. It is a partner in his personal biography and a muse in his artistic output. Destiny, ‘the arbitrary intervention of a third party’ as Truscott expresses it, saw him plucked from a life making plastic bags and ‘heading down a really, really bad path’ to a mentored residence in an art studio and an unimagined career as an artist and sculptor.

Born in 1975, Daniel Truscott was part of a conservative Catholic family, one in which the idea of a career as an artist was never a consideration. He began his art ‘career’ as a nocturnal graffiti artist, at a time when the respectability of ‘street art’ was beyond belief.  A largely self-taught painter, he dabbled in abstract expressionism but was always drawn to what he describes as ‘realism’. For Truscott, this realism manifests as the desire to tell a story through the depiction of objects. Narrative is an important part of his work, as is the quirky perspective that he brings to the seemingly mundane. He is first and foremost an oil painter, one who has developed unique mastery of brush and paint to create surface textures that hint at the three-dimensional.

Bored with the accepted subjects of ‘still life’, Truscott began experimenting with toys, Noddy and Big Ears in the first instance: what would it be like if Big Ears left Noddy for a Soldier?  Brush to canvas and the result was a strikingly poignant comment on accepted stereotypes and human relationships. This work won the People’s Choice Award in the Metro5 2004 Art Prize, and Truscott’s individual style was born. The universally accessible and symbolic world of the toy became the playground for the artist’s acerbic, yet humorous, commentary on human culture.

Lesley Kehoe Galleries’ introduction to Truscott’s works came with the series ‘Kokeshi Dreaming’ in 2006. A sell-out show in Melbourne, further works in the series were exhibited by LKG in New York to similar success. The anonymous and seemingly expressionless kokeshi, a simple traditional Japanese toy, is ideally suited to the portrayal of a range of human emotions. Riding the wave of popularity of Japanese anime, Truscott has tapped into the Japanese tradition of depicting sensitive human emotions and life dynamics through graphic anonymity. In the hands of traditional Japanese artists, this anonymity was a purposeful tool for allowing the viewer maximum identification with the subject. Truscott’s work combines the anonymity of the toy with an uncanny ability to create an immediately empathetic narrative. The use of the static and symbolic ‘toy’ resonates with the masks of traditional Noh theatre, a tacit narrative with coded incantations.

Truscott is a child of the first wave of Japanese anime, a fan of Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy and Kimba, and of the iconic Pac-Man video game. He sees Japan as a continuous subtle influence in his life. With grandfathers in the WWII military, an air fighter pilot relative, and a pilot father, he grew up on stories of air-to- air combat, dogfights and a fascination with the kamikaze and Bushido.

‘In Ghostly Japan’ continues Truscott’s affaire with Japan and its symbols. For Lesley Kehoe Galleries, it is the third of planned annual exhibitions devoted to Australian artists whose work resonates with Japan and the Japanese aesthetic. ‘Japonisme’ began its inroads into Western art in the nineteenth century and has continued unabated since. Reinvigorated by ‘Cool Japan’ in the 21st century, its pervasive influence is seen in all aspects of culture.

‘In Ghostly Japan’ is titled in deference to one of the most well known works of the doyen of Japan’s exotic spiritual world, Lafcadio Hearn. The works reflect Truscott’s journey to the ‘dark side’. It is a further evolution of his exploration of the ‘spectre’, literal and metaphorical (the spectre of financial doom) first introduced in the 2012 exhibition ‘To Die For’. Truscott speaks of having exorcised personal demons with that earlier exhibition and of furthering his fascination with the eerily seductive world of Japanese ghosts. Serendipitously, Truscott’s exhibition fits in with a resurgence of interest in Japan into the world of the supernatural. Stories of dislocated souls and nomadic ghosts pervaded post-tsunami Japan and spread to museum exhibitions.

Truscott is bewitched by the majesty of Japan’s centuries of tradition, finding inspiration in the specificity of its pageants of ghosts. In the West, we see a generic ‘ghost’; in Japan one comes across identifiable ghosts such as ‘Yuki Onna Snow Woman’ and ‘Umi Bozu Sea Priests’. These sea priests are Truscott’s favourites; he is fascinated by the apparent arrogance of a ghost that will not be addressed.

Destiny intervened in the sculptures of Umi Bozu in the form of a couple of LPG tanks Truscott saw on the side of the road. The subtle indications of the three- dimensional in his painting naturally led Truscott to experiment with material form. Lump Sculpture Studio gave him the opportunity to discover the mutability of steel and to indulge his ideas of three-dimensionality further. LPG tanks have been transformed into the menacingly elegant Umi Bozu of this exhibition. Truscott eschews the academic justification of art and its intellectual conceptualization, preferring his work and its accompanying narrative to speak for itself. In the transformation of LPG tank to Umi Bozu however, he muses about the possibility of objects also having a destiny: ‘- I like that idea of using stuff… it ties in with my ideas on destiny.  I’m not really sure whether things are pre-destined to be a certain way or whether… you can change your destiny; when that gas tank was strapped on to the bottom of a car was it always destined to be a work of art in a gallery… or, did I change its destiny by finding it in the rubbish and altering its form…?’

Japanese ghosts inhabit the everyday as well as the literary and the poetic. They have been sources of inspiration for classical painting and literature from very early times. They are part of the theatrical traditions of Noh and Kabuki theatre. Truscott’s warmly familiar Caspar-like ‘Hitodama Human Soul’ appears in the Imperial Anthology Man’yoshu of the 8th century,

When you are alone and meet the complete blueness of a hitodama, you would naturally think of it as the sorrow on a rainy night

and inspired the death poem of the great artist Katsushika Hokusai, he of the famous Great Wave of Kanagawa, in the nineteenth century,

hitodama de / yuku kisan jya / natsu no hara’
‘now as a spirit / I shall roam / the summer fields’

Daniel Truscott brings a little of this eerie and somewhat bizarre classical world to our local sensibilities. From the austere shiny blackness and luminous resin eyes of the ‘Umi Bozu Sea Priests’, Truscott moves us to the warm familiarity of the Caspar-like ‘Hitodama Human Soul’, and the army of fiercely cute green ghosts of the Hyakki Yagyo Night Parade of One Hundred Demons. He brings a touch of humour and accessibility to an alien world, and in so doing perhaps creates a questioning of the position of the spirit world in our own artistic and cultural traditions.

In Ghostly Japan
Lesley Kehoe