DETROIT — There is something especially affecting about artworks that make you wonder at the artist’s process. Both artists featured in Wasserman Projects’ two-person show WHEAT + YABE, Summer Wheat and Hirosuke Yabe, have placed an emphasis on pioneering techniques within their practices, and to remarkable effect.
Yabe has spent significant time developing his facility with the Nata hatchet — a traditional woodworking tool of Japan — and combining this tool with aesthetics that resoundingly embody the kind of mythical realism that underpins iconic Japanese storytelling, from folklore creatures to the Studio Ghibli pantheon. Over the course of a month residency in Detroit, he created three large-scale sculptures within the Wasserman space, as well as a phalanx of smaller works that surround the larger pieces. These creatures, large and small, are salvaged from logwood and discard from demolished Japanese houses that are often more than 100 years old; in the case of the larger constructions, each individual piece has a carved form and face, creating a kind of populace of anthropomorphic pieces, sometimes animated as spinning propellers and fans.
The largest of the works is inspired in part by a wider concept developed by Yabe, called “The Faithful Dogman.” This is the artist’s characterization of a sense of social conformity and unabated consumerism that has permeated both Eastern and Western cultures. This figure, which presides mammoth-like over the gallery floor, seems, perhaps, to supervise a smaller Dogman sculpture (a Puppyman?). The latter greets viewers with a playful, but servile physical attitude, recognizable to yoginis as a variant on “puppy pose,” and complete with a small butt propeller that reads as a kind of high-art fart joke.
If Yabe’s constructions are the sets and characters of this Miyazaki-esque stage play, then Wheat’s large-scale paintings form a colorful and dynamic backdrop. Their singular finish is achieved by pressing thick acrylic paint through a matrix of aluminum mesh, creating a remarkable, tapestry-like effect. Wheat has likened this to a kind of pixilation, and in the context of Yabe’s living animation, it reads very much as a refined version of 8-bit aesthetics — but the tapestry effect created by the mesh would be equally at home in a fiber art show.
Consumerism is Wheat’s subject in this series and she presents her own take on it. In each of four paintings, women interact with a coin. In a sly bid for gender equity, she presents exclusively female subjects, including those figured on coin faces. Whether literally consuming, as in “Cookie Coin” (2019), or banking within a shopping cart, as in “Coin Cart” (2019), or picnicking in a visual send-up of Matisse’s “Le bonheur de vivre” (1905-06), as in “Picnic with Coins” (2019), the artist’s females revel in consumption.
A multimedia artist with a wide range, she also contributes a row of eight ceramic piggy banks, “Piggy Bank and Stars, No 1-8” (2019), each hand-painted with different ultra-cute decals, vainly reflected by little mirrors that sit beneath them like reflecting pools. In the farthest reach of the gallery, through the adjacent solo exhibition of handmade ceramic vessels — quite anthropomorphic in their own right — by Portland, Oregon-based artist Matthew Bennett Laurents, is Wheat’s ceramic tour-de-force: “Tuilipieres” (2018). This tiered tulip vase stands more than five feet high and its form mimics the gabled roofs of Shinto shrines. Its square base depicts illustrated scenes in black-on-white glaze, and is supported at its four corners by gilded lions. It is a remarkable cake-topper to a display of artistic virtuosity underscored by daring conceptual and aesthetic dynamics.
WHEAT + YABE presents a seamless experience, despite the artists’ divergent worlds, media, and subjects. The arrangement of the artworks at Wasserman creates a space that feels wholly separate from the world, one that compels visitors to walk around and inside the exhibition, seeking out its occupants and messages. Both of these artists prove that innovative materials and processes can accompany, and support, conceptual vibrancy. As usual, the curatorial vision of Wasserman gallery director Alison Wong, along with the Butter Projects curatorial series that features Laurents’s work, presents a veritable wonderland of technique, character, and consumption.