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Takuji Hamanaka uses the bokashi technique to print his meticulously fit together, cut sections of paper. During the 19th century, Japanese artists such as Hokusai and Hiroshige used the technique to gradate color, to darken or lighten the sky along the top edge of their prints, suggesting movement and changing light. Having reviewed Hamanaka’s exhibition at Kristen Lorello in February 2020, I was curious to see his current exhibition at the gallery, Takuji Hamanaka: Future Recollection (August 31 – October 2, 2021), and find out what point the artist had reached with this technique. 

Curious to know how Hamanaka learned bokashi, which requires him to be extremely precise, I asked his dealer if she would send him some questions. This was what I discovered. Hamanaka did not go to art school. Rather, he apprenticed at the Adachi Institute of Woodcut Prints in Tokyo for three years. While in high school, he began going to the Institute during spring break and other school holidays, commuting two hours each way, from his home outside of Tokyo. There, he was taught different Ukiyo-e woodcut techniques dating back to the 17th century.

Hamanaka has pushed this traditional, time-consuming procedure into a style that is not like anyone else’s. His abstract compositions are captivating fields of subtle color gradations. In order to make these mosaic-like works, he has to seamlessly fit together hundreds of cut pieces of monochromatic sheets of paper, according to a clearly defined plan. 

Takuji Hamanaka, “Caramelized Memory (2020), cut and pasted monochrome woodblock printed papers, mounted on museum board, 32 x 25 1/2 inches

In “Caramelized Memory” (2020), different-sized, fuzzy-edged quadrilaterals, which suggest rounded edges, are suspended in a caramel-colored field. Each of the quadrilaterals contains sections of gradated color (green, pink, yellow, orange, gray-blue) fit together in the center, surrounded by a gradated band that goes from faint at the edges to a faded, ghostly caramel. The result is mesmerizing and unsettling, like a memory that is haunting and elusive. 

By varying the size of the quadrilaterals and the alignment of the colored sections within each one, as he does in “Sliced Petal” (2020), Hamanaka can imply a state of constant movement. This sense of movement is enhanced by his use of color, which suspends the quadrilaterals in a state between coming into focus and fading from sight. 

While Hamanaka’s works are abstract and formal, the blurred forms are apt to stir up different feelings, as well as invite you to ponder the nature of memory. 

Takuji Hamanaka, “Sliced Petal” (2020), cut and pasted monochrome woodblock printed papers, mounted on museum board, 32 x 25 1/2 inches

Although the artist works with a demanding incremental process, in the two exhibitions that I have seen of his art, he does not repeat himself, nor does he seem interested in making variations on a particular composition. Repetition never leads to sameness, just as each day is different. 

Hamanaka’s preoccupation with gradated color conveys his interest in the different kinds of soft and indirect light one encounters in nature. In the largely gray “Lights in the Northern Land” (2020), he evokes semi-transparent crystalline forms containing the diffuse shades of blue, yellow, pink, and green that occur when particular types of gaseous particles are present in the atmosphere, and arrives at an abstract counterpart to the phenomenon of the Aurora Borealis, also known as polar or northern lights. Set within a striated green ground, the white flared forms contain a single faded color, usually traversed by a darker band in “Atmospheric Phenomenon” (2020). 

In the prints of Hokusai and Hiroshige, bokashi originally served a single purpose, the illusion of depth in the representation of sea or sky. By repurposing this painstaking technique, Hamanaka has attained something original. From what I have seen in the two exhibitions he has had in New York in the past three years, which have included a total of 16 pieces, he has created a remarkable body of work. 

Takuji Hamanaka, “Atmospheric Phenomenon” (2020), cut and pasted monochrome woodblock printed papers, mounted on museum board, 32 x 25 1/2 inches

Hamanaka makes work that cannot be mass produced or sped up. Each sheet of paper must be printed individually. This deliberate slowing down of time, and the seamless fitting together of the cut pieces of paper, become a kind of production and shaping of time that the art world, in its love of capitalism, has all but declared obsolete. Clearly, in Hamanaka’s hands, it is not. By reinventing bokashi, he reminds us that nothing is dead, even when many proclaim otherwise. What makes this achievement even more powerful is Hamanaka’s merging of technique and vision, as well as his expansion of the realm of woodblock printing into new territory. 

Hamanaka’s single-minded pursuit shares something with artists such as Myron Stout and Piet Mondrian. For all the constraints they established to direct their investigations, they never developed a style or became predictable. I look forward to seeing Hamanaka’s next group of captivating surprises. 

Takuji Hamanaka: Future Recollection continues at Kristen Lorello (23 East 73rd Street, 5th Floor, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through October 2.

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John Yau

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the...

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