Installation view of Permutations exhibition at Garvey Simon gallery (all images courtesy of Garvey Simon unless otherwise noted)

The Permutations exhibition currently on display at Garvey Simon gallery is very much about Tamiko Kawata’s meticulous manipulation of unassuming, everyday materials. At the same time, it is about a rigorously modernist practice that walks the bridge between the 1960s — when Kawata moved to New York and began working with the safety pins prominently featured here — and now, where the strategy of accumulative aggregation still continues to fascinate artists, fans, and writers. We rarely tire of perceiving the relationship between the snowflake and the storm, because the individual unit suggests infinity in a way that can actually be held without triggering cognitive dissonance. In the flat, placid grid of the piece “Permutation 8” (2018) the pins interlock in a skein that might indeed go on forever, evoking a chiasmus of the line from the famous William Blake poem. It’s not “see[ing] a world in a grain of sand”; but rather, seeing in a grain of sand (the possibilities of) a world. And in Kawata’s world, pins linked in regimented ranks can become a scroll 25 feet long, such as in “Installation Piece (2018). They might form conglomerated castles that have oxidized into ruins as in “Twelve Arms” (2015), and convoluted mobius strips as in the “Unknown” pieces (both large and small made this year).

Tamiko Kawata, “Installation Piece” (2018) steel safety pins, 132h x 22w x 4d in

The tactic of unrelenting repetition has been used to marvelous effect by artists such as Do Ho Suh, in the 2001 Venice Biennale, where a floor he fashioned seemed to be held up by innumerable plastic figures under transparent glass plates. More recently Ai Weiwei’s Laundromat exhibition at Jeffrey Deitch Projects presented the collected abandoned shoes and clothing of refugees, which were displayed after careful washing and ironing. These pieces overwhelm, push the viewer towards terror and melancholy because the hands, the bodies, become too many to count and we recoil, not quite consciously realizing that our tools for comprehension are calibrated to grasp that which is discrete, that which can be compartmentalized and thus contained.

Kawata takes an alternate tact, making intricate works small enough that we can imagine what it takes to put them together by hand, and thus are less about macho, muscle flexing bravado, and more about intensely explorative treatment of materials. Kawata asks the viewer to recognize the alchemic properties of the fundamental structure of corrugated cardboard. In a piece “CBL-1 City Scape” (2018), cross sections of the cardboard are laid out in a linear fashion, stacked close, with alternating lengths, the cross sections causing alterations along the horizon line. It reminds me of the silhouette of a city scape seen from miles away.

Tamiko Kawata, “CBL-1 City Scape” (2018), (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Of course, the paper clips, the safety pins, the cardboard sections she uses are avatars of Kawata’s imagination; they are also representations of a quiet and meditative sense of what mysteries in the world can be extrapolated from the premise of one tiny element.

Tamiko Kawata, “Permutation 8” (2018), safety pin, acrylic, canvas on wood, 33.75h x 32w x 1d in

Part to whole, cell to body, building to city block, individual to community — these relationships are compelling to us because we know, perhaps intuitively more than intellectually, that unless we understand them fully, we cannot survive. William Blake had such lofty ambitions, such as to “Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand.” But the studious interrogation of Kawata’s Permutations, carried out link by careful link gives me more than enough possibility to explore.

Permutations continues at Garvey|Simon gallery (547 West 27 Street Suite 207, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 6. It was curated by Liz Garvey.

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Seph Rodney

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a senior critic for Hyperallergic and has written for the New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, and other publications. He is featured on the podcast The...