In Japan, where the windows of ancient temples reflect the harsh glare of neon lights, the placid past and the vibrant present seem to walk side by side without touching. Getting them to join arms is the mission of two young and noted painters.
Makoto Fujimura and Hiroshi Senju spent years studying nihonga -- traditional painting techniques -- which they now use to produce paintings of startling modernity. Their works are on view at New York's Dillon Gallery in a show that runs through June 8.
They look to the past in their choice of medium, making their paint themselves by grinding minerals and oyster shells into a powder, then mixing it with glue derived from animal hides. It's a laborious process that produces an unwieldy paint -- and that's exactly the point.
''The difficulty creates a sense of identity for the people who use it,'' Fujimura said in a recent interview.
It also creates a palette of colors that are quietly luminous, an effect Senju uses in his waterfall paintings.
That impression is augmented by the array of techniques he uses to depict the water -- throwing buckets of paint at the canvas, flinging brushfuls of paint, finishing it off with a delicate mist from a plant-spraying bottle.
''I think of it as an animistic technique ... the form expresses the content,'' Senju says. But the waterfalls are stripped down nearly to the point of abstraction.
By reducing the image to simple elements, the paintings show one waterfall and every waterfall -- ''the essential waterfall in my heart,'' Senju says.
Fujimura also works to show what is in his heart, but in a way opposite to Senju's bold and striking images. He covers his large expanses of rice paper with thin, translucent layers of paint that glow like unpolished gemstones.
Many of his paintings include verses from the Bible; Isaiah is his favorite because he was a ''prophet of hope.''
The effect is Fujimura's attempt to evoke the physical and spiritual aspects of nature.
Senju's waterfalls portray the simple beauty of nature that has existed for milLennia. Fujimura's complex creations evoke the mystery and allure of the future. Being surrounded by the paintings at the Dillon exhibition, then, puts the viewer in the same position as Japan's artists -- looking forward and backward at once.