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Tomoko Amaki Abe

A Hair’s Breadth

at A.I.R. Gallery
by Jonathan Goodman, January 7, 2024

3.Future memory.jpg

Tomoko Amaki Abe's recent work, at A.I.R. Gallery near downtown Brooklyn, often made of such materials as concrete wood, and glass, invokes the passage of time and its effect on both natural materials and the melancholic presence of decaying urban sites. In this new body of work, quite a leap ahead when compared to earlier efforts, Abe creates works determined by images usually encased in glass.  The main installation is three separate works lined in a row on pedestals, the transparent face of each stanchion features black and white silk-screened images.

At first glance, there is very little that ties the work to Abe’s Japanese background. Because the artist was trained in Scotland and has been living in New York City’s environs, perhaps it is natural that the artist would inevitably make art evidencing contemporary Western art practice. Her rows of glass plates, following each other (often in groups of three) on waist-high white supports, emphasize their formal display. More often than we would think, advanced sculpture today derives strength from architecture–its double function as art and shelter, its closeness to sculpture–but on a larger scale.

The images contained by the glass are often dark in tone and are often disorganized photos that are hard to describe or even understand. But they belong to an esthetic in which the ruin, and its implications, take over the meaning of the work. This means that the images' chaotic appearance affects the presentation of nature and its decay over time, as well as indicating the wild distress of overused or abandoned urban spaces. Also, not only do Abe’s works describe time, but they embody it in their facture and imagery. It is remarkable to see time made visible, as happens in the artist’s efforts.

Abe is an artist working in a strongly post-modern milieu, present nearly everywhere today. But she is more than that–she is strongly involved in her facture and her ideas, which come from long experimentation. As time passes, the modernist tradition may become moribund, but this hasn’t happened yet. 

In the meantime, Abe relies on the fragment, the mixing of art genres, and the visionary eclecticism that still distinguishes art made now. Questions of Asian influence simply do not come up. So the themes of Abe’s two shows have mostly to do with how the image, encased in a frame, can be used to reify time. The capture of time is impossible, but Abe does a very good job of slowing it down for study, as evidenced in the works we can discuss now.

Abe’s work brings up questions about how her approach might be used in the future. Our past is fast approaching oblivion resulting from computer use, which recalls facts without remembering the emotions that accompanied them. Abe’s work, whose intense emotional life is almost always indirect, presages a time when the facts will be lost to time’s passage. And this is the basis of her current work: the capture of time, which can only be rudimentary at best.

We move into more and more narrow pathways of recall, which results in increasingly narrow pathways of emotion, thought, and even behavior. Abe’s art is elegiac in the sense that most art stems from memory. A sense of loss occurs even when the memory is created imaginatively. Today we need a visionary realism more than ever before, and Abe, being gifted, as she is, turns the past into something tangible. The tangibility is real, despite coming from the mind.

This being hard to do, Abe achieves her aim. In Black to White (2023), an environment occupying a corner of the gallery’s front space, thin bent limbs, made of wood and cast glass, hang over the ceiling and come close to a white oval surrounded by thin stick-like pieces of dark brown textile. It is very poetic in its tacit suggestiveness. The aura of the work is derived from a sensitive reading of nature – and Abe’s ability to find cultural value in nature.  The exterior world thus becomes subject to the imagination. Likely the two worlds influence each other.  Caught in the tangle of Abe’s imagination, and the intricacies of her environment – we remember that Abe lives close to the Long Island Sound – Black to White functions as a vehicle for nature within the confines of cultural expression. 

In the wall work entitled Lava Blue (2022), a slate blue, circular porcelain slab is attached to the wall and extended three inches from the wall’s surface. In truth, the work is more truly a slab: there is a jagged cut into the porcelain on the upper left, and the body of the relief consists of a rough exterior with holes extending back into the wall. The parts and pieces of the work push against each other in near aggression. The piece is deep enough to throw shadows on the wall behind it. Lava Blue works as an abstraction that could be read as an image taken from nature. It is not so far from a visionary evocation of earth.


Image info.:Header: Installation image, A.I.R. Gallery; Image 1:  Tomoko Amaki Abe, Hair and Autopart, 2023, Cast glass, automobile part, 48 x 32 x 4 inches. Image two: Black to White. Image 3: Instalation image A.I.R Gallery Photography: Matthew Sherman. Images courtesy of the artist.

The sculpture titled Hair and Autopart (2023) consists of cast glass and an auto part. Set on a raised table, the two parts, comprised of a longish skein of hair at the top, and beneath the hair, a mysterious black car part, that cross each other.  This is nonobjective work whose elements present forms at rest. The long hair’s color turns from black to white but appears slightly glassy. It looks a lot like a waterfall lying flat. The black automobile part, maybe a car radiator, looks industrial, but its mechanical function is unclear. 

Abe, a strong artist, cannot easily walk away from the modernist tradition, still a starting point and inspiration for many artists today. As a conceptual sculptor in the middle of her career, her work stays “gender neutral” whatever that might be today. Abe still subscribes to a common art language that combines organic and industrial materials. And eclecticism remains dominant.

Future Memory (2023) consists of three plate glass frames, set in a row behind each other, and two images hung from the ceiling and placed slightly to the side of the glass frames. The steel tables, waist high and supporting the white stanchions, allow the images the glass contains to be easily seen, as well as the lines holding images that hang from the ceiling.  

In the second, middle table, the image facing us (there are pictures on both sides of the glass) is a flat, entirely black surface, and another image, easily visible and seen from the front of this installation, is a rock outcropping. As the image depicts, a group of large, cracked slabs of dark tan stone moves upward, decreasing in size as the rock rises. This work, in its entirety, demands duration–the work–the time to move past the different images and also to make sense of their complex relations.

But time cannot be measured by an image, even if it exists as an integral element of our experience. Instead, it needs to be understood as a work that demands to be studied over time– seconds or minutes. The stillness of the group of images we meet is vitalized by duration, a needed part of our experience in making sense of the planes. In a brief conversation, Abe talked about time’s passage and whether its memory might be distilled into something permanent. It is hard to say. How does one give physical truth to an abstraction? Artists who work with recall must picture the event, the environment, the object, or even the emotion active behind the memory.

Abe is determined, then, to free her audience’s assumptions by showing that even if we can’t see time move, we can imagine it doing so. The question thus is practical: How do we image an abstraction? With another abstraction? If we do that, the art becomes too non-objective to be readily understood or even seen.  The saying “Only time will tell” becomes more than a pun in this context. The individual components are joined not by intuition but by sight over time. Connecting the parts is a time-based requirement.

Abe has been able to transform duration into something physically palpable. Her art, then, turns on a paradox: time, always an abstraction, must somehow find a physical base to offer the ideas behind such measurement. The image forces the abstraction to construct something actual–a realism we all understand. Otherwise, we enter a world of smoke and mirrors, in which the invisibility of something so arbitrary and radically abstract as time becomes hopelessly inaccessible, preventing us from determining its features (however far they may be from our knowledge). Abe shows that abstraction based on nature can become a comment on an implied merger: the joining of the intangible with the real. This is a genuine achievement.


Tomoko's work can be seen at the ArtsWestchester until January 14, 2024

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