artist spotlight

















  Artist spotlight        


The Artist Spotlight presents a series of exceptional artists who are at the forefront of contemporary art and who explore a variety of themes and aesthetic forms. All of them work with strong individuality as well as remarkable talent to create work that is both distinctive and interesting. The in-depth study shines a light on our featured artist and explores the artist’s main impulses, their practice, their influences and their motivational drives as well as the specific intentions around the work on display. 

Rui Matsunaga

April 2020

(Online catalogue)

Rui Matsunaga is a Japanese artist who lives and works in London and Japan. She initially studied Religion with her thesis being the symbolism of animals in the Bible. She then studied at Central St-Martins and at the Royal Academy of Arts, where she was made a fellow. She has exhibited widely in the UK, US, Japan and elsewhere. Her work is included in many private and public collections around the world and recognised for its symbolism and beautiful execution.

Rui’s influences are drawn from Asian folklore, mythology and popular culture. Her work is also deeply rooted in animism: the ancient belief system that is still prevalent as an undercurrent in parts of the world and particularly amongst native peoples. This is the belief that all things, animate and inanimate, can have spirit or anima, and that we share a world with a myriad of spirits and gods (Kami) and that a divine essence connects everything. A tree, for example, can be something where those spirits can reside and form a sacred element of reality deserving of deep respect. This contrasts with the historical western view that sees nature for instrumental value only.

Myth and folklore are constantly being reshaped, morphed and retold to fit the needs of the time. And, as people continually move from one place to another, cultural crossover has become far more significant. As a result, the narratives we carry have had to change.

Firestorm (oil on plywood - 30x40cm – 2016)


In our modern Anthropocene world, humanity is at the centre of the world with a divine right over nature, whereas in animism, because everything expresses a spiritual essence, humanity is no longer at the centre of everything. The animist philosophy connects people but also connects people with the land they live in and with another world altogether that might not seem physically present. This philosophy questions the layers of reality that we inhabit and its boundaries and creates a sensibility to the worlds beyond our perception of reality.

When anomality penetrates and disrupts everyday life, our sensibility expands and we may become aware of the threshold of our existence and what lies beneath; the reality of constant exchange between death and life. We are in such a moment now. A multiverse where parallel or alternate realities (or dimensions) coexist, one closer to what we inhabit, others that are more mystical, mythical, magical and symbolic. They are subtle and not obvious in everyday life.

Today’s science also explores this possibility of parallel worlds and multiple universes as it grapples to unlock the secrets of reality, or the secrets of our reality. Little is what it seems as we delve deeper into the microscopic world or further into the universe and we reach the very outer limits of our ability to understand in everyday terms.

Rui’s paintings show surrealistic, dystopian and apocalyptic visions populated by exotic animals. The dreamy landscapes stem from a portentous imagination and evoke complex visions where the anthromorphised animals are present in singular scenes that can be comical, poetic and tender at the same time, with an acute sense of foreboding, often accentuated by a singular light, with a cool and disquieting quality that adds another dimension to the work referencing the post-nuclear status of Japan.
Being and Otherness
Her paintings offer layers of worlds superimposed one upon another and questions what is and what is not. The extraordinary detail and expertise bring subtle and constant discoveries as our eyes keep wandering through the paintings’ poetic worlds: landscapes strewn with bones and debris with isolated windblown threadbare trees where mythical animals engage in strange and perplexing activities.
Her work depicts the savage and relentless destruction of the environment and reflects upon an increasingly technologised world where our current relationship with nature and spirituality are questioned. She creates hypnotic and enigmatic landscapes where the figures are not real but touch upon an inner reality; our sense of time passing, its inevitability and the knowledge that nothing can prevent or change this. Lives are born, rise, fall and die, but the vast landscape continues on, as it always has. Our lives are mere echoes that fade. The seasons pass and the wind blows just the same. The sense of time and space where everything happens, in a place of joy or of tragedy, passes eventually leaving behind the sense that everything was a dream.

As Above, So Below

In Rui’s work we see a world below ground and a world above though neither offers the viewer a panacea for the world’s ills. The small creatures in the work can be seen as spirits of nature but also morphed projections of our human existence. They explore our fragile and sometimes treacherous relationship to nature in a subtle narrative poetic manner. They are inspired by mythological ways of thinking, in which human beings are not so different from other beings, constantly communicating and even interchangeable. It is a way of viewing the world by analogy that tries to see a deeper similarity among seemingly separate things.

In this world we are not so differentiated from the surroundings nor is everyday reality to the world of dream. There is a dreamlike quality to this work. Dreamtime does not only exist when we sleep but influences our reality when we are awake. They are leaking out to each other, nourishing both of them.













Itch (oil on linen) - 50x40cm – 2016



Key Influences

An important influence in the Rui’s work is emakimono, traditional Japanese scroll painting, especially the Chōjū-jinbutsu-giga from the 12th century. These are long scrolls that visually relate a story through multiple scenes as the scroll is unrolled. Often commissioned for Shinto shrines they are visually woven with animism and provide a sense of storytelling laced with ambiguities. This is something that Rui’s own work reflects with every image resonant with ambiguous and half-defined narratives that both invite and defy interpretation at the same time.
Her work also draws from the manga world (especially the Director Miyazaki) particularly by the recurrence of themes such as humanity's relationship with nature and technology, the wholesomeness of natural and traditional patterns of living, the importance of art and craftsmanship, and the difficulty of maintaining a pacifist ethic in a violent world. Violence is something that is also implicit within Rui’s work, a poetic violence often merging with love and tenderness.
Despite being rooted in old tradition and beliefs, Rui’s work is distinctly contemporary as it reflects on current concerns about the damage to nature and a new perception of how we interact with nature. Her reflections on nature have proved to be eerily prophetic in some ways (i.e: the paintings depicting wildfires)

Ways of Working - Techniques:

The artist starts with an image that grows and changes organically during the painting process.  Most of the small creatures and overall landscape images are drawn in the beginning though. She draws the small creatures in a sketchbook, traces them onto tracing papers and sticks them on the wall to see them all together.
As the eye wonders, stories start to form, eventually giving her a glimpse of a certain narrative they can convey. It is a process of picking two or more things which seemingly don’t have much in common, but when they get together, tell stories that were not obvious in the first place, a process the artist enjoy very much.
Each painting or drawing typically takes about a month from start to finish.  Rui tends to work on two paintings at the same time, so that she can paint one while waiting for the other one to dry. She uses layering to build the surface, and to create subtlety of light and to achieve the surface and details that are convincing to herself and connect to her emotional expression: each brushstroke is the reflection of our emotion. When she paints trees, she feels the tree and also creates the tree. It’s not about the image looking like a tree but discovering your own tree in that moment.


These captivating and intriguing images depict mythological animals enacting curious activities or postures. In Japanese mythology the animals convey important symbolic and mythical value.
The drawings are largely inspired by Durer engravings. The print is filled with astrological and alchemical symbolism which evoke many interpretations. Rui uses it as a starting point to future her thoughts and imagination in relation to the philosophy of animism and human psyche.

Pedalling through the dark current (2018)
38x28.5cm - Pencil, charcoal and Ink
on Somerset Satin 300gms

Eternal sunshine (2018)
35x25cm - Pencil, charcoal, ink
on Fabriano Rosaspina 285gms