I am interested in artists who revivify a technique that has fallen into disuse or associated with a historical period: their practice suggests that a medium, however long its history, has not been used up, that it can still be pushed forward.
In his recent paintings, which I reviewed, David Reed employed cangiante, a Renaissance technique that enables him to model a form with hue rather than value.
When I learned that Takuji Hamanaka used the bokashi technique in his work, I decided to pay a visit to his exhibition, Takuji Hamanaka, at Kristen Lorello (January 23–February 22, 2020), which means today is the last day to see this engaging show in what I believe is snuggest gallery in New York.
Bokashi is a well-known woodblock technique used by 19th-century Japanese artists to create a gradated color. You see it in prints by Hiroshige, Hokusai, and other masters, where the sky darkens as it rises about Mount Fuji or a wooden temple.
According to the gallery’s press release:
The start of each work involves printing hundreds of sheets of paper in single colors using the ‘Bokashi’ technique […]. in which a woodblock is colored unevenly to create the sense of a fade or gradient of color when pressed onto paper. Selecting limited combinations of color, Hamanaka cuts smaller pieces from the initial prints and arranges them onto paper within planned compositions.
Inspired by mosaics, Hamanaka prints each cut sheet of paper in a different gradated color, darker on the outer edge and lighter as it extends inward. Relying solely on this method, Hamanaka is capable of achieving a range of optical effects, depending on the shape of the paper and the arrangement of colors that are used.
One effect, produced by the curved, tapering bands of paper in “Stream” (2019), suggests a rounded surface, with light striking the centerline of each band. While Hamanaka uses a limited number of colors, the sequences never match up. At the same, color-wise, the four vertical stacked bands grow longer as they move from left to right. The result is mesmerizing, as attention constantly shifts in search of a securing pattern to hold the thing together. If there is one in “Stream,” it eluded this viewer.
The depiction of moving water, as in a rushing stream, is both simple and impossible; how do you picture similarity and constant change at the same time? This is one of the things Hamanaka appears to have done in “Stream.” He has transformed a familiar sight into its abstract counterpart, so that it can be viewed as a work unto itself, uncoupled from its referent.
There are seven works in the exhibition, with six measuring exactly the same: 32 by 25 ½ inches. The seventh, “Water, Light, Wave” (2019) measures 22 by17 inches. The palette consists of faded primary and secondary colors with browns and blacks, with the cut sheets of paper carefully fitted together. The gradations vary slightly from rectangle to rectangle, so that each sheet seems to be struck by an unseen light.
The overall arrangement and palette varies from work to work. At times, I felt as if I were looking at the cracked surface of something unrecognizable. Other times, the repeating bands establish a rhythm, which the limited colors counteract, calling for closer scrutiny. At no point did I lose track of the fact that these painstaking splicings of color and arrangements of form were done with paper. The surface of each work felt both visual and physical. These works seem to have been made by a mason who lives in heightened state of consciousness.
In addition to reviving a 19th-century woodcutting technique, Hamanaka has expanded the domain of Op Art, complicating what Richard Anuszkiewicz, Bridget Riley, and Julian Stanczak did with pulsating visual effects and sharp graphic contrasts.
Hamanka’s color contrasts are subtle and each color is a gradation, rather than a solid shape. Essentially, he has taken the primary ingredients of Op (large forms and rhythmic visual repetitions) and turned them into smaller sections and interrupted, gradated patterns. The effect is the opposite of what happens when you look at a crisply colored painting by Riley or Anuszkiewicz. In Hamanaka’s works, the shapes hover between coming into sharper focus and fading from view. Examining the surface, you begin to get lost in the looking. That state of getting lost happens differently in each work.
In “Windows in a Foreign Shore” (2019), the shift between figure and ground never settles into something fixed. The eye keeps moving around the surface, trying to decide whether it is the open tubular parallelograms or the negative shapes inside of them that anchor the composition. Again, Hamanaka pulls off the impossible: he combines repetition and disruption so smoothly that you cannot find the seam between the two. The effect is spellbinding and unsettling. At times, the forms seem to exist in a state of blur. I don’t know of another artist who attains this reverberating visual state.
Takuji Hamanaka is on view at Kristen Lorello (195 Chrystie Street, Lobby (between Rivington and Stanton), Lower East Side, Manhattan) though today.