21 Aug. 2012

A Tautological Trick / HOSHINO Futoshi

The six paintings of Sasai Aoi’s June 2012 solo exhibition at the Ando Gallery take “tree” as their motif. This fact may appear too obvious to be worthy of comment; however, I will begin precisely with what is evident. These paintings represent from two to four trees with strict symmetry; at the same time, they diverge in their tones and compositions. To approach these six “tree” paintings, it is necessary to focus on their consistency and difference.

What is their most perceptible similarity? As just mentioned, all these paintings, titled Laurales, Quercus, Deodar, Myrica, Morus, and Quercus 2, possess strictly symmetrical compositions. The trunks, branches, and foliage of the trees are all carefully balanced on the canvases. Trees are even-numbered in some paintings and uneven in the others; in both cases, they are placed so as to maintain the symmetry of compositions. Sasai renders backgrounds as blurred, gray skies, allowing the singularity of each tree to stand out.

As a consequence, we effortlessly identify these subjects as “trees.” However, this easy identification requires scrutiny, for the trees represented by Sasai may be quite distinct from those that we ordinarily see. We know that most “real” trees have large trunks and multiple branches with thousands of leaves. Thus, Sasai’s trees are markedly different from such flora; nevertheless, we quickly identify them as “trees.” Is it the title that makes possible this identification? No it is not, since few people can spontaneously identify the subjects through the titles, which are the Latin names of tree species. Consequently, it is nothing but the images themselves that enable us to take these painted figures as “trees.”

Therefore, while it is obvious that the motif of Sasai’s work is “tree,” the identification of this subject is not so simple. In the paintings, the trunks are much thinner and the foliage much more crowded than in actual trees. For some people, the foliage of Quercus and Quercus 2 may, for example, appear as the back of a human head. In some cases, the identification of trees is, in fact, made possible by the presupposition that “they are all trees.”

For this reason, I emphasize the obviousness of Sasai’s paintings, that is, the certainty that she is rendering “trees.” My hypothesis is that her painting muddles, in a sense, our inquiry into their subject matter by satisfying us with easy identifications. It would be safe to say that she creates the tautology “a tree is a tree.” Her “tree” paintings put us in front of this tautology, terminating our inquiry by the overtness of their representations. An audience made blind in such a way cannot see anything but the tree as an image that corresponds to the tree as a given concept. The calm tone and stable composition of the paintings enforces this tautological impression. A trick is at work here: Behind the seemingly realistic representation of trees, the painter sets a trap that is hardly perceptible to the audience.

In Sasai’s work, for example, light and shadow are frequently different from those in realistic paintings. The shadow that accompanies branches may give the impression that it is painted in a realistic manner; however, it is sometimes rendered in a way that goes against our intuition. According to our experience, there should be only one source of light in her paintings, for trees “must be” in the open air, receiving light from the sun. Betraying such a view, the shadows in her painting suggest multiple sources of light. The highlights of some foliage and the shadows of branches imply the presence of such manifold sources (see Deodar or Laurales). In other words, Sasai’s paintings contain an order different from that of realistic painting. It is worth mentioning that she does not show off this technique in her painting; rather, she tricks the viewer’s gaze through her apparently modest style. In this way, we are made blind to representational guiles of her work.

The positioning of trees is another example. It is relatively perceptible in Quercus and Quercus 2. In these paintings, the branches of four trees are intertwined in a strange way. When viewing a realistic painting, we can easily estimate the direction in which branches are heading by noticing shadow or accompanying representations. However, in viewing Sasai’s work, it is much harder to reconstruct three-dimensional space, for she intentionally betrays, as I have indicated, ordinary rules of perspective. In short, Sasai frequently distorts representational space in secret, confounding the viewer’s perceptive sense. What is more, she does not make this distortion too visible but keeps it ambiguous. Thus, the trees of some works (see Deoder or Laurales) may be seen as standing at the same distance from the viewer’s position, or they may be seen in a three-dimensional perspective as having the same distance from each other.

These observations are far from trivial. It is true that Sasai’s “technique” creates pictorial spheres inside the canvas, but it is equally crucial to note that we are kept from noticing it in viewing her work for the first time. Being quickly attracted to the presence of trees, we tend not to pay proper attention to the painting itself. Trees that have characteristic figures keep us insensible to the painter’s operations on the canvas, such as the multiple sources of light or ambiguous perspectives. At a first glance, there seems to be no riddle in her painting, and this apparent simplicity is, in fact, her “trick.” Trees presented in a calm tone stop any inquiry by implying that “there is no riddle before us.” Indeed, they actually mask pictorial processes. It is the artist’s “technique” that conceals itself by creating the pictorial sphere inside the canvas.