On ViewRamiken Crucible
October 16 – November 20, 2021
A rare and welcome opportunity to see veteran Los Angeles artist Takako Yamaguchi’s new work is currently at Ramiken. This show of 14 paintings, titled 7 + 7, is a tour de force, a culmination of Yamaguchi’s rigorous, intellectual approach to craft, representation, and the intertwining of pattern and identity developed over four decades. The exhibition is presented on two perpendicular walls, with seven paintings on each wall, and although each set works as a cohesive series, together they form an intriguing invitation for the viewer to construct comparisons, or a doubling, as 7 + 7 implies. There is much to unpack, as their differences are as striking as the similarities are beguiling.
The seven paintings on the east wall are all Untitled, oil on linen, 18 × 24 inches (2021). They are exquisite white tonal monochromes, pristine grounds inset with a variety of geometric abstract forms. But Yamaguchi reveals that they are also something more: photo-realistic representations with a lengthy backstory of process. The first step is the fabrication of a set of models, shallow white reliefs of plaster, wood, and foam core that resemble architectural details, or possibly models for construction, displayed on a base and viewed from above. They are made purely to be photographed, and once this step is completed, Yamaguchi begins her hyperrealistic paintings of triangular folds, stacked and arranged rectangles, and concave and convex discs that quietly appear to recede and protrude from the surface with elegant precision, proportion, and balance. Charged with formality and serene beauty, they seem at once extraordinary, perfect, and evocative of modern painting. Yamaguchi has been affiliated with the Pattern and Decoration movement of the 1970s (her work is included in With Pleasure: Pattern and Decoration in American Art 1972–1985, currently on view at the Hessel Museum of Art) and has observed that she felt that Americans presumed that a Japanese woman would adhere to Minimalist aesthetics. She instead made work utilizing the decorative patterns of kimonos. Here, she creates a form of Minimalism on her own terms, and with further characteristic wit she confounds Greenberg’s insistence on Modernist painting’s flatness and adds his theory’s nemesis, trompe l’il. The surface is an illusionistic visual marvel, pure magic, and the viewer delights in the deception. The seduction of the trompe l’il ineluctably draws the viewer in, as does the tender evocation of warm light and shadow across the forms. The texture of the linen under Yamaguchi’s particular sense of touch becomes incorporated into the image, softening the edges and blurring the boundaries of certainty. All traces of the mechanical eye of photography are subsumed back into the primacy of tactility and into the sensual appeal of material and representation. Yamaguchi cites Morandi’s work as an influence and here it seems most evident. Labor is also important to this reclusive artist and the paintings hum with focused work and meditative hours in the studio.
The south wall presents the second series of seven, a contrasting blast of color. All are Untitled, 48 × 36 inches completed between 2020 and 2021, with the exception of Untitled (Blue Cardigan), (2012-2017). The compositions are uniform—close cropped, symmetrically arranged, finely rendered images of Yamaguchi’s clothed body at about four times human scale, her upper torso filling the frame from just below a trace of the neck, pores and all, to just above her waist. Rich color fills the frame, the swell of the breasts billowing the space slightly forward and every stitch, pleat, button, and—in the case of Untitled (Scallop Collar Blouse), (2021)—each of the hundreds of tiny dots unique to the blouse’s print are all accounted for and carefully portrayed. The exception is Untitled (Chain Link Pattern Skirt), (2021), framed from just above her waist to above her knees with a glimpse of elbow on either side. The pattern is larger and bolder here, the heavy folds of the fabric slightly misaligning the pattern as it falls from beneath the sheen of a black patent leather belt. But tension often resides in the unseen and here it’s created by the invisible pubic area right in the center of the painting. Yamaguchi catches us in our unseemly desire and the paradox of our wanting, even trying, to see through these clothes or, rather, to see through an illusionistically painted canvas. These paintings are carefully mediated through photography and, like the work of Cindy Sherman, we are well aware that the gaze is the artist’s own. As with the white monochromes, there are several iterations of a model at work; obviously, the clothing that Yamaguchi specifically chooses for their painterly possibilities but, additionally, a “modeling” in Yamaguchi’s performative act of donning the clothes for the necessary photo shoot. Comparisons to Italian artist Domenico Gnoli’s gigantic, cropped torsos from the 1960s are useful, but unlike Gnoli’s imaginative approach, there is nothing childlike, or “Magritte-like” in Yamaguchi’s paintings. Instead, they detonate a serious and unsettling adult emotional charge, voyeuristic and erotic. The cropped dimensions of the image are about what we can take in while looking into a mirror, and they evoke the sensation of self-assessment, of time and loss. They are movingly poignant. Who hasn’t experienced, with a glance in a mirror, a withering standoff with the ego?
Yamaguchi profoundly weaves questions about the possibilities of representation, the construction of an image, identity, and the implications and utilization of artifice. The paintings are imbued with the connection of sight to touch. In his 1959 essay “The Visible and the Invisible: The Intertwining—The Chiasm,” Merleau-Ponty states, “Since the same body sees and touches, visible and tangible belong to the same world … There is double and crossed situating of the visible in the tangible and of the tangible in the visible; the two maps are complete, and yet they do not merge into one.” In the challenging and mature work of Yamaguchi, the combination of 7 + 7 equals sublime.