Friday, January 20, 2012

Life Process: Hiroe Saeki at the Pizzuti Collection

It's not going too far to suggest that any viewer, of any age or acquaintance with art, will react with dropped jaw to Hiroe Saeki's three mixed-media drawings in the Pizzuti Collection's Teasers show. Some form of the question, "How could she have done that?" will leap to mind, or its variant, "I could never do that!" While the second is probably true, it would be too bad to leave the first as merely rhetorical: There's a lot of fascination in Saeki's process.
Hiroe Saeki, Untitled ("Center"), 17.7" x17.7," graphite and acrylic on paper,  2008.
Courtesy of the Pizzuti Collection
 Alas, the three 17.7" square works on paper are poorly hung in this show. They occupy the dimmest corner of a small room and their Plexiglas boxes distractingly reflect everything around them—the neighboring Kara Walker video, and the swirling Suling Wang abstract drawing opposite. Saeki's virtuosity is mesmerizing; that it remains so through a lot of major environmental impediments is powerful testimony to the fascination it exerts.

The list of materials on the labels for Saeki's works do not mention "graphite." But that's clearly the material that composes the undulating soft masses—the "clouds"—of gray. The color and sheen, the absorption into the paper, are all characteristic of the material.  Graphite is often delivered to large areas by broad bars or in powder form. Powdered graphite is particularly useful for achieving effects like Saeki's: We see the imprints of the artist's fingertips, which have rubbed accumulations of graphite into the paper both to produce lighter and and darker value, and to thin out its application on sections of the paper.

Hiroe Saeki, Untitled ("Right"), 17.7" x17.7," graphite and acrylic on paper,  2008.
Courtesy of the Pizzuti Collection
What the labels do specify is that the artist used pencil. This tells us that Saeki created these great masses of gray by accumulations of small strokes of graphite, all except a very few of which have been obliterated by rubbing and blending. (One detects discrete pencil strokes along the bottoms of "Right" and "Center,"  They also emerge in energetic tiny shoots from the margins of the gray/white lines in "Left" and "Right."

To think of Saeki's covering pages with tiny pencil strokes will inevitably bring "obsessive-compulsive" to the lips of some for whom such repetitious application is a sure sign of abnormality. But if we attach ourselves in imagination to the hand that holds the pencil, do we really find ourselves acting from a bizarre compulsion? Wouldn't we, rather, be moving with contemplative study and care?

Hiroe Saeki, Untitled ("Left"), 17.7" x17.7," graphite and acrylic on paper,  2008.
Courtesy of the Pizzuti Collection
Floating in some indeterminate spatial relationship to the graphite clouds are tiny circles, sometimes single and sometimes massed like molecules. It's tempting to call these "bubbles" except that they are described by unexpressive line only—unshaded—so that they are distinctly two-dimensional events. Whether they are part of the gray "clouds" or are spatially separate and exist as a scrim before them (if so, by how far?) is uncertain.
white circles/bubbles (author photo)

Were Saeki to have defined the gray areas by the use of graphite by bar or powder with less effort, she would have had to cover too much paper. the coverage of the paper would have been less under he control. It would have been impossible to retain the virgin white areas required for describing those white circles. Each is outlined with fine-point pencil, and the dark background meets its edges precisely. Only by precise application—use of the pointed pencil—would it have been possible to leave the white.

visible pencil strokes at edge (author photo)
The ability of the hand to illuminate the mind cannot be overstated. When my own hand tries to imagine Saeki's, carefully moving across those pages, poised to avoid smudging, sometimes creating density and sometimes the delicacy of "Left's" black-to-white edge, I'm aware how this work would quickly become the sort of meditation that softens one's breathing and cleanses the mind. This work is not obsessive; it's an induced state of being, a reflection that is its own experience independent of the artifact—a completed drawing—that will emerge at some future point.

As the work continues for the artist committed to the calm and patient course, how the stakes go up! When does a plan or goal emerge, as it must? Then, what constitutes error in the composition? Does the plan include the end, or does it remain to be discovered, all of a sudden?
detail from "Left"
author photo
Saeki's pencil draws a medium, environment, or background for events executed in spring-colored twists of acrylic paint. In "Left," the paint is applied as two thick vertical strokes that have the presence of foreground figures. In "Center," an amorphous, filmy creature appears to be suspended in its gray medium. The paint in "Right" is spatially different, caught between planes of the white circles.

The painted passages of the three drawings appear as quickly executed as the graphite appears the opposite. Saeki provides not only contrast, but the drama of extraordinary daring since the paint effaces large areas of the what has been so painstakingly accomplished.

Saeki's willingness to present together the labor in graphite and the intuitive fortunes of paint underscores the depth and seriousness of her work. The wisdom to value without overvaluing the meditative, repetitious movements, combined with the courage to use them as a basis for bold acts of insight—this strikes me as constituting a mature ethic.

Ultimately, I think Saeki's drawings, while touching on questions fascinating to Art—representations of three-dimensional space, techniques in chosen materials, process of composition—are exquisite examples of life and art allied. Whether Saeki's outlook on contemplation and action nurtured her artistic process; or if her thoughtful process has crystallized this connection between constancy and decisiveness I cannot know. But the relationship is indisputably modeled in the work.

Breathtaking work like Saeki's—work that contemplates core issues of how we live—is available to anyone who walks through the open gallery door—and looks.

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