Nissho Kanda was only ever half there

Dead horses, jazz, imagined orgies and inescapable bleakness

Horse (last work, unfinished)

Was Nissho Kanda a laugh? Well, it seems that would depend on which day (or decade) you met him. Kanda’s work spans from semi-dissected animals scratched out in rusty browns to technicolour orgies of splattered paint. Whether channelling the sad, slow life of farming in Hokkaido or the escapism of 60s pop maximalism he communicated in extremes.

This dichotomy was a product of his short life. Born in 1937, Kanda was moved from Tokyo to Hokkaido during WWII. It was here he became a farmer and got to know the harsh environment of Japan’s northern island more intimately than most. This elemental struggle never left him.

It’s appropriate that his most famous work is only half there. His style varied so much it gives us the opportunity to keep guessing how he might have finished the piece. “Horse (last work, unfinished)” depicts the front of the animal as Kanda died suddenly, aged just 32, before he could complete the piece. The head and front legs are finished, while the abdomen has only the base layer. The rear is a few sketched lines and the background remains a bare wooden canvas. While this leaves a great deal for us to interpret, it also reveals something of his approach.

Kanda’s jittery, almost mosaic style is derived from loading up knives with oil paints and scraping them into the landscapes and subjects he experienced. As he developed his approach and borrowed from different influences his level of detail increased. In the mid to late 60s he explored messier, expressionistic styles but ultimately returned to something more formal, which can be seen in his final work.

Whilst dying horses, bleak landscapes and the faces of agricultural workers are captured in dark reds, browns and greys; Kanda’s hobbies are given technicolour treatment. For several short spells he experimented with bright colours to capture his interest in pop culture. But reviewing Kanda’s overall trajectory it’s unlikely that he would have reached for anything other than muted colours had he completed Horse (last work, unfinished). His brighter works feel out of place and are harder to believe once he has already convinced you of the tough lifestyle of a northern Japanese farmer. They could be escapism or celebration, but they seem incongruous with the story we are being told. Once the harsh winters had touched his bones he seemed compelled to return to them.

One of the biggest clues to Kanda’s outlook is his ongoing presence in his own work. Each time a self portrait features in a painting he appears dour, serious yet closely studying. He lets the viewer know that the work is not the only thing that is being observed. Much of the artist’s work is quietly unsettling but this feeling of being watched is echoed in Horse (last work, unfinished). The animal eyes us as if we’re interrupting something, as if we’re too early. The horse waits patiently for the unfinished areas to be addressed. This leaves us as the ones to break the difficult news that it will always remain this way.

Tokyo-based, researcher & brand strategist. Sketching thoughts on culture here.