On Tsuba (2003)

Statement on Tsuba


Tsuba Colony (1995) Mixed media on canvas. 113 x 152 inches (287 x 386 cm)

The Tsuba, or Japanese sword guard, is a refined utilitarian object. It is essentially a sheath for the blade to fit through, protecting the hand of the warrior. The Tsuba often has an overall perforated design, and always a central opening which narrows at its base, suggesting a vagina. For the Samurai, it also functioned as an article of distinction, as his sole personal ornament. The motifs found in After Tsuba Colony date from the 17th and 18th centuries, but the Japanese craft of sword making on a level of perfection unsurpassed in the west goes back at least as far as the 12th century.The Tsuba motifs as they are seen in this painting are greatly enlarged from their original jewel-like dimension of several inches across. In this sense they have been transposed into emblems, and the building up of these impressions becomes a form of emblem writing in hieroglyphic progression.

This Tsuba imagery is again juxtaposed, or written over, with various coils of razor ribbon that are rendered more or less to the actual scale of this material–the coils are also partially gilt with platinum leaf. Razor ribbon is a descendent of the barbed wire used by cattle ranchers in 19th century America to mark off vast property boundaries. Today, of course, razor ribbon has become the most technologically developed form of security wire and most insidious obstacle to human passage–the very signature of fear and predation. In After Tsuba Colony, razor ribbon as an instrument of threat is brought into a qualifiedly free pictorial situation. Here, it loses its power to inflict physical harm and becomes “merely an image,” or perhaps a mirage of pain and suffering.



Tsuba Drawing (1995) Mixed media on paper. 16 x 20 inches  (41 x 51 cm)

Is there such a thing as a Buddhist Warrior, an ancestral warrior poised in defense of a tradition of divine authority? I believe this painting participates in the Buddhist concept of the symbolic weapon, the Vajra or thunderbolt, which is the cutting incisive spirit to be hurled at our demons of complacency.

August 15, 2003—New York City

Written for “The Invisible Thread: Buddhist Spirit in Contemporary Art,” organized by Roger Lipsey
at the Newhouse Center for Contemporary Art, Snug Harbor, Staten Island, N.Y.
September 28, 2003—February 29, 2004.