Saturday, June 13th, 2009

Takako Azami at M.Y. Art Prospects

May 28 – June 30, 2009
547 West 27th Street, 2nd Floor (suite 204)
between 0th and 11th avenues
New York City, 212 268 7132

Takako Azami Pine Trees 2008. Ink, pigment on hemp paper, 48 x 60 inches. Courtesy of M.Y. Art Prospects
Takako Azami, Pine Trees 2008. Ink, pigment on hemp paper, 48 x 60 inches. Courtesy of M.Y. Art Prospects

Takako Azami is much taken with the attractiveness of leaves and foliage, and has spent years capturing the elemental qualities of pines, bamboo, plum and maple trees. Born in 1964 in Japan, Azami has consistently concentrated on the rendering of trees, whose vegetation she turns into concentrated beauty in sumi ink paintings (there are a dozen large- and mid-size works in the show). Interestingly enough, the works, dense with rounded blotches of ink, also can be seen as abstractions, although it is clear over time that Azami’s imagery derives from genuine scenery in nature.  As curator and professor Midori Yashimoto points out in her short, insightful catalogue essay, the effects of Azumi’s paintings find correlations in Western artists such as Mondrian and Agnes Martin, whose grids generated art of remarkable beauty. In the same way, Azumi’s idiom of dots and lines shows us how a painter may work out an intuitive system of visual accomplishment, enabling her audience to appreciate the organic structure provided by nature.

Indeed, the most compelling detail of Azami’s art is its openness to other traditions. Recently the artist has spent time in residencies in New York and Vermont, whose influence has been general rather than specific. But it is true that overall her painting is approaching a conscious combination of natural specificity and abstract idealism—qualities that reveal an appreciation on the artist’s part of achievements and legacies not necessarily belonging to her own culture.  The endless assertion of Western art’s influence on contemporary Asian art, which seems a bit tired now, is truly enlivened by a double reading of Azami’s ink painting.  It is easy to read her work as belonging to the great Japanese tradition of suibokuga (ink painting), but it is also true that the pieces easily take their place within transcultural vocabularies that owe their energy and effectiveness to the development of Western abstraction. Azami’s paintings show us that eclecticism continues to work as an esthetic, especially at a time when there is so much intermixing of culture.

Azami’s technique is unusual: working in her studio north of Tokyo, she uses ink to draw dots, small and large, and lines on the back of absorbent hemp paper. She allows the ink to partially bleed through to the front of the other side of the hemp paper, building a vocabularly thick with rounded splotches that mimic the form of a trees’ leaves. The effects of the ink forms are remarkable, bringing both anarchic energy and formal balance to compositions that are notable for their technical skill and rough fidelity to nature. In a practice that recalls the allover compositions of abstract expressionism, Azami refuses to focus on the particulars of perspective and so energizes the entire field of her subject. Viewers can see this put to spectacular effect in the 4 by 6 foot work entitled Pine Trees (2008), in which dots of ink, some as big as a clenched hand, crash and collide, suggesting the texture of trees in wind and light. Some of the dots are gray, while others are deep black; Azami regularly makes rows of dots connected by thin lines.

It is a pleasure to experience Azami’s art, which is descriptive rather than conceptual. In New York’s art culture, intellectualism has taken over the field, but there is room for other, more phenomenological art as well.  Bamboo 8 (2006), more distinctly Japanese in its affiliations, is vertically hung like a scroll. Consisting of dots that hang from long stripes—the work is 63 by 19 inches—Bamboo 8 feels highly traditional. The sharp, narrow bamboo leaves are outlined in negative space, which is slightly yellow in hue.  Seeing the bamboo foliage cascade downward, one has the sense that the artist is at one with her subject matter. One of the most interesting aspects is Azami’s negative capability: her technique demonstrates a willingness to expunge the self in favor of a poetic exactitude of description. This makes her art not only visually compelling but also spiritually charged.