On ViewA.I.R. Gallery
March 19 – April 18, 2021
At first glance, Japanese-born, New York-based artist Tomoko Amaki Abe seems to have constructed an environment highlighted by individual pieces of art, mostly works of glass. For her show Respire, Abe had the main gallery of A.I.R. painted black, while ambient music by Yuika Abe resembling the sound of breathing maintains a mood of contemplation that links the artworks to each other. Perhaps it is a cliché to say that the Japanese revere nature, but in this artist’s case, the statement is true: the imagery and textures of the sculptures are intended to evoke similar visual details found outside. Now that we are living in a time of great, likely permanent, damage to the natural world, it becomes more important than ever to salvage our experience of its beauty—through art if necessary. This is a loss, of course; we need nature itself to survive more than we need an inspired facsimile. But ecologically-minded art like Abe’s reminds us, in poetic fashion, not only of what we have lost, but what we can keep alive of nature in our imagination. Her sculptures, regularly made of glass (powder glass for silkscreening, frit and plate glass for casting), involve visions of leaves and other elements of nature that register both as close copies of the original and as imaginative studies of how we might transform the exterior world into something made by hand.
In Blood to Milk (2019), Abe has fashioned a double loop constructed of a thin, curving branch and a narrow cast-glass strip very close in form to the wood. It hangs in space near the far wall of the room. Intended to illustrate the biological transformation of the mother’s blood into milk for the baby she cares for, the piece only tangentially hints at this biological process. It is a beautiful sculpture in its own right, with the wooden twig and opaque white glass enacting a physically intimate relationship, as happens in breastfeeding. Like much of Abe’s work, the viewer begins by looking at art whose origins, either in thought or form, may seem more abstract than they are. Sometimes it is easy to make sense of nature in her work and sometimes not. In Silver Lining – Six Pack Holders (2021), Abe takes the ubiquitous plastic holder of soft drink and beer cans and casts it in clay, glass, and wool. It is indicated in the press notes that the sculpture is suggestive of the human body, but my sense is that this is a comment on the ubiquity of synthetic materials now deeply established in the sea. A film projection of blue sky and long, narrow gray clouds (part of Six Pack Holders) found on the wall next to the sculpture also argues for a reading of the sculpture, whose source is plastic, as an intrusion into nature.
Transpermanent (Blue) (2018), a diptych wall relief made of silk-screened and slumped glass, consists of seemingly abstract forms. The shapes rise off of the flat plane they belong to as they move toward the center of the sculpture. But while the piece might look abstract, it is actually very specific: casts of leaves made with powdered glass, laid across a flat glass plate. During the firing, the leaves crack and merge, presenting a state close both to decay and to regeneration. Here art imitates nature by transforming it into a metaphorical state, one with symbolic possibilities. In Grey Leaf /Green Shadow (2018), a gray leaf is rendered with a green shadow behind it on a plate of green glass. On the other side of the plate is an image of the leaf’s shadow. This particularly strong work is a study in positives and negatives, based on the object and the shadows it throws. Like all of Abe’s work, it stems, in theme and form, from nature, confirming our intuition that nature is capable of retaining its creative aspect even now.
Abe’s ability to create visually complex, emotionally-driven statements stems from a merger of thought and craft. Glass, often wrongly dismissed as a mere crafts material, here belongs to a creativity that is hardly marginal. When an artist works with nature, it becomes clear that the environment she is describing is endless in possibility. The sculptures described here make use of glass’s unlimited suggestiveness in ways that remain strikingly memorable, not least because of the types of glass she uses. As a result, her creativity, a cultural reading of the natural world, can be envisioned as a language both personal and objective, expressed in inspiring fashion.