In contemporary art today, the long conflict between the old and the new seems to have been settled in favor of the new. While there is a movement, in some limited way, toward figuration, which would argue in favor of a return to tradition, this return is small in comparison both to abstract painting and more experimental efforts. But more than a few painters continue to keep their culture’s painting history alive, at the same time addressing the task of contemporaneity. How do we effect a balance between painterly tradition and moving into new areas of creativity? Is it possible to do so when the field of painting has been so thoroughly explored in light of 20th-century movements? In New York City, where Japanese-born painter Sao Tanaka lives today, we continue to rely on the belief that abstract painting, a strength of American culture since the early middle parts of the last century, is a dominant mode of artistic expression. Yet it can be argued that such abstraction has been choked by the past, resulting in moribund works that imitate rather than transform art history as we know it.
The situation is particularly intricate for Tanaka, who is a gifted painter working in the complex space between the past and the present. Educated in both Japan and New York, she is currently making paintings that mostly abstractly convey the Japanese legacy in art: ribbons, forms out of nature, and subtle, luminous coloring combine in compositions of remarkable unity and feeling. One of the more notable aspects of Asian painting is its acceptance of ornament, which is understood not as a weakness, as often happens in Western culture, but as a viable tool in the artist’s choice of styles. It is not that Tanaka is determined to make her work attractive in a shallow fashion, for ornament in her culture moves from something shallow to an appreciation of the deeper aspects of a deliberately beautiful imagery. Her recent work is highly accomplished in the sense that historical forms and effects in Japanese painting are remade into nonobjective visual compositions that comply with the history of her culture. But her paintings also convey, in understated fashion, the abstraction we are so used to today.
As good as Tanaka’s paintings are, and they are really very good, we find ourselves returning to the difficult question of historical influence and its usefulness in a culture dominated today by an extreme eclecticism that is no longer geographically or culturally based. Why is this so? Because of the internationalism that has now taken over in art? And, also, is the eclecticism taking place because the cultural influences, across place and time, we meet on the Internet are now considered fair game for use, even if the artist is distant in a personal way from the cultures she makes use of? It is different in Tanaka’s case, for she is using imagery that can quickly be noted as present in her own culture’s past. Interestingly, by abstracting the historical suggestions she employs, the visual consequences of that employment start to become attributes of a much newer esthetic. Yet the suggestion of historical quotation remains prominent. If we were to criticize her work, we might say she remains in the past. But that is not the case. Tanaka’s strength lies in her ability to put together highly finished compositions that make use of tradition to establish the present, in ways that regularly remain abstract, but also often figurative, often encompassing floral imagery.
In Western culture, we have been determined to make art new ever since the years quickly following the start of modernism. Yet our wish to be innovative has resulted in confusion; so long as the art is visibly different, we assume it has the merit of innovation. But what if innovation itself were forced into a cliché, repeated monotonously, as if the unusual were, by itself, a sight of original vision. There are times, of course, when painting has moved into unknown territory; at long last, after more than a century, we are finally freeing ourselves from modernism’s tenacious grip. But that does not mean earlier efforts cannot be used, any more than it means newness alone is a virtue. I don’t think Tanaka has set out to live in a former cultural epoch any more than I see her work only as a concerted attempt to challenge current traditions. Something else is happening; we can see her paintings as a contemporary view of precedents that are deeply familiar to anyone aware of the Japanese classical tradition. In fact, Tanaka’s decision to move to New York looks like a conscious choice to participate in an international art-making, something the city is known for. But that does not mean she is leaving her origins; the art clearly shows that Tanaka is revisiting her culture in ways that strengthen the contemporaneity of her art. This sounds slightly counter-intuitive, but it is in fact true.
Perhaps the major question following Tanaka’s output is that of an audience. Who is going to look at this work? Who is going to understand it? In a major urban international art center such as New York, there may well be more than a few viewers who are capable of appreciating the strengths of Tanaka’s art. Yet one wonders: Is Tanaka’s art too historically influenced to gain the support she needs in New York, where so much work is now devoted to politics and, as well, high technology? The artist makes the tacit assumption that painting, even classically inspired painting, can be viewed objectively as a convincing new effort in art today. Tanaka takes the chance that she will be understood in this fashion, but we must remember that there is an indifference, even a hostility, to work that quotes the past in much of contemporary culture. If it is true that the artist’s paintings are amalgams of visionary effects envisioned a long time ago in Japan, and which are then reconsidered and reworked into patterns that slightly suggest the international modernism now in place, then her esthetic is not so old-fashioned as it might seem. The classical impulse, a mixture of moderation and restraint in life and art, has been nearly obliterated by current boredom with all precedents, and by the determination to fashion something original—no matter what.
It is clear that Tanaka did not set out deliberately to make the art I am describing. Like all painters, she makes her work to see what develops. But maybe, too, it is time to revisit the past, in order to anchor painting, even if relying on the archaic can veil our ability to see current art circumstances clearly. The situation becomes complex: one way of evading an excessive dependency on earlier efforts in art is to fragment them in ways that diminish their weight of influence—at least in an obvious sense.. If we reduce an older style to the simple, but beautiful, effect of ribbons floating in space, as Tanaka does in the painting called “Vapor 2” (2022), her audience confronts an abstraction that is nonetheless rooted in figurative imagery created centuries ago. “Vapor 2” is a beautiful painting, but one that has a specific point of origin, hovering, as the ribbons do, in the midst of a continuum that cannot be pinned down. Maybe, now, this is one of the best ways of making art, in the sense that we have explored for so long, and now have so quick a grasp on past images because of the Internet, we are living in a continuous present, in which dead painters mingle easily with live ones, exchanging ideas and imageries as if they were all made now, at the same time.
Contemporary art is not so much at a crossroad as it is at the point of exhaustion. One of the biggest problems facing us is a lack of skills, which are often not taught in the art schools, which prefer political dialogue to the preservation of technical ability. Tanaka might well be called brave in her presentation of well-composed paintings, in the sense that she remains faithful to a great tradition. But even more important, she refuses to substitute content for craft. In paintings, of course, content cannot be separated from craft: what we say is inevitably joined to the way we say it. Tanaka’s well-earned designs show us that it is possible, as it always has been, for an artist to compose in ways that are memorable, even conservative, in the sense that they are beholden to earlier efforts. I think her decisions may well be a way of opening up a door leading to a space of free decisions, based structurally on the appreciation of former paintings. Doing so implicitly critiques the fetish we experience today in making art that must be new. Even if Cubism seems to have risen, nearly fully formed, from the imagination alone, historical continuations had come to an end by the turn of the 20th century. Something new had to be done, and it was. Now we are living in a time that is searching for innovation, it can be argued that one strength of painting might be found in the idea of return. Tanaka seems to have known this intuitively, early on.
In “Vapor 3” (2022), Tanaka has painted a work of middling size, rife with dense accumulations of traditional Japanese painterly effects. A rounded, light pink, nearly white mass of ribbons occupies the lower left; one part shoots like a tendril with a sharp point at the end moving into the central part of the painting. Above it, slightly left of center, is a rounded shape that looks like and is colored as if it were a peach. To the right is a thin accumulation of yellowing tendrils, with a single, curving green leaf hanging from the very top. Underneath these surface embellishments are passages of green and red that act like slightly vaporous backgrounds. In the upper left there is a bright area, close to white, punctuated by inchoate yellow forms. It is a beautiful painting that remains joined to a Buddhist imagery, one that might have been developed a few centuries ago. But the effects have not been created with an idea of figuration. They remain outside the realm of the recognizable. What the viewer really sees is a complicated amalgam of shapes that could easily suggest the spiritual imagery of Buddhism or the intelligent fashioning of floral suggestion. It is the kind of work that we cannot closely characterize, although it is clear that the composition is highly developed and pieced together. Although the painting feels like a watercolor, it is actually a mixed-media piece. Its exceptional sensitivity to form and color, coupled with a strong eye for design, makes the work particularly strong.
Maybe, like a lot of artists working today, Tanaka is happiest working with a hybrid understanding of styles. The work is old in its references, but new in its refusal to turn those references into something we easily understand. Her argument is always indirect. The painting keeps its distance from comprehension beyond a general understanding of garden-like attributes. Tanaka, in her recent work, does this on a regular basis, making beautiful, intricate surfaces that refuse to reveal their hidden meaning. Why would the artist work in this way? It makes sense that doing so adds a complexity of thematic interest to an already intricate style. In abstraction, a lot of the time we don’t know what we are looking at—a complexity Tanaka is not truly committed to in her art, which suggests discernible shapes even as they seem to evade us. The point is that the artist is not committed to any particular strategy; the overall placement of form escapes all easy understanding. It is likely this is not a conscious stratagem on the part of the painter; rather, it is a decision made unknowingly. As a result, the atmosphere is more than slightly mysterious, a quality not necessarily associated with ornament. Other versions of the painting, one in yellow and the other mostly in blue, accentuate our feeling that Tanaka is searching for a recognizable style, one which would be anchored by form rather than color. But the color, however subtle it may be, intensifies our experience of the shapes and configurations we see. Their slight differences of vocabulary increase our feeling that we are regarding a series, joined by a single hand,
“Vapor 1” (2022) consists of a collection of pinkish white ribbons, whose vertical placement enables the gently curving forms to trail across the paper. The forms vary in thickness and connect or come close to each other, undulating in a way that suggests historical art (one thinks of the ribbons, often accessories to women’s clothing, painted in the Buddhist caves of Dunhuang in northwestern China). Whatever the origins of Sao’s imagery, it becomes clear that she is interested in anomalies of style that result from the past in art. These ribbons, thick and thin, take over most of the surface, whose flattened area beneath is a mottled yellow on the left, descending nearly to the bottom and covering the width of the upper register. On the right is a gray-blue background that is roughly triangular, ending upward at a point two-thirds into the painting, and beneath, covering the full expanse of the lower width. It is a marvelous work of art, isolating past effects, but we cannot confidently assert its meaning. Yet maybe the conundrum of its interpretation is central to the way Tanaka works. She finds the means to mystify us with qualities in art we know have been around for hundreds of years, even though the (devotional) meaning of their presentation eludes any easy capture.
“Vapor 2” (2022) also works with these bright ribbons. In the case of this particular work, we come across what is nearly a maze of swirling, interconnected forms that join each other as they overlap. The effect can be likened to an open mass of scarves, highlighted by the sand-like color of the background. Here the ribbons are depicted in rounded fashion, curving as they establish a rhythmic connectedness. In this work and the one looked at above, we see that the word “vapor” is central. Vapor is a mist-like accumulation of water, so it is a visual term in its own right. But in conjunction with the titles’ imagery, perhaps it may mean something more, something slightly mysterious, even devotional. But, again, it is not so easy to make sense of the connection joining the painting’s energies and what they are called. Time and again, we come up against the problem of a clear definition of Tanaka’s art. But that is not so much the result of weakness as it is a consequence of the complexities at hand. We look at the atmosphere, the “vapor,” of the artist’s works and find that they exist in a place where definition and nuance are undermined by a kind of art historical quotation. References to the past may well redeem Tanaka’s efforts, but they also make it difficult to separate that past from the current suggestions found in her art. In a way, she is presenting a seamless authenticity of purpose, one that extends beyond her conscious awareness of motive. That is what turns her art nearly into an enigma, albeit one that we cannot say is utterly impenetrable.
Tanaka’s paintings have little to do with most of the work we see in New York. She is an independent, almost a scholar of painting, even though her interests reach into the present day. Her work is necessary in that she embraces the known and turns it into something else—not something obscure, but rather something beyond our knowledge. Most Westerners don’t know the history of Japanese paintings, so Tanaka’s tacit references, taken from the past, may seem obscure. But this is not the case. Today, the spirit of the time moves along in a highly individualized fashion, and gives Tanaka the means to quote and innovate as she may. Since she is showing in New York, her mostly Western audience cannot be criticized for a lack of information regarding Japanese art, so far away. All they really need to know is that Tanaka has developed a style close to Japan’s art history, and that she also is determined to offer an idiom that is as new as it is archaic. My own feeling is that this is a great way to proceed. Hidden suggestion, the result of long consequences of art, becomes clearer if we look at it without demanding an explanation. If such an approach turns the work toward the unknown, so be it. Whenever the past is used in a contemporary fashion, it is up to the audience to piece the arrangement together. Tanaka is not in any way confusing us with implications beyond our reach. Instead, she is looking at the place where present esthetics assume the past is alive, in ways that strengthen both her art and the audience’s response to it.
Jonathan Goodman, October 13, 2022
Upcoming exhibition: Mizuma & Kips, 324 Grand Street, New York, NY 10022
SAO TANAKA "Meld Gold" / Opening reception: Saturday, November, 6 - 8 pm November 5 - November 23, 2022