108 Blue Cranes
Just last year, Japanese-American artist Yoshitomo Saito moved to Colorado, and he's already the subject of a major solo: 108 Blue Cranes, at Rule Gallery, one of Denver's top venues. I don't need to tell you that this is no mean feat.
Born in Tokyo in 1958, Saito attended Jiyugakuen College in that city before moving to the United States in 1983 to study at the Penland School in North Carolina and, later, at the California College of the Arts, located in the San Francisco Bay Area. Saito earned an MFA in sculpture at CCA in 1987, and since then his work has been exhibited internationally. He still maintains close ties to California, being represented by the prestigious Haines Gallery and having his work included in several important collections, notably those at the Oakland Museum and the de Young Museum.
Saito's 108 Blue Cranes at Rule is unbelievably ambitious, featuring even more pieces than are referred to in the exhibit's title. Despite the quantity, every single piece is exquisitely crafted and intelligently conceived. The expertly executed hanging adds to the show's appeal so that the gallery exudes an air of harmony, elegance and sophistication the minute you walk in the front door.
The show could be read as something of a retrospective, because the work covers the past twenty years since Saito left graduate school. The earliest pieces are from his "Box" series, which have been placed on the floor. All of them date back to the late '80s and early '90s. These bronzes were cast from wooden originals, and Saito meticulously preserved the grain, indicating that the "skin" of a piece was as important to him as the form.
Sculptures from his "Pillow" series are also displayed on the floor. For these, Saito took casts from actual pillows and, as with the boxes, recorded the exact surface effects.
"I had believed that sculpture had to have an interesting three-dimensional shape," explains Saito. "It was my bias toward sculpture, and I was trapped into the idea."
In 2000, Saito broke away from his interest in three-dimensionality and began making flat pieces. The first of these in the Rule show are from the "Skin of Cardboard" series, in which the artist cast scraps of corrugated cardboard in bronze and then leaned them against the wall, à la Richard Serra. With these "Cardboard" pieces, Saito made a dramatic shift from work that was meant to be seen in the round to pieces meant to be viewed only from the front, like a painting. "I have always been anarchistic, so I have to see things from the other side," he explains.
The cardboard works represent the start of a chain of artistic events that have since occupied Saito and play off his deconstructionist streak.
A good example of his taste for playing against expectations are the pieces from the "Imagiro" series, created in 2000 and 2001. (The title is "origami" spelled backward.) These are hung in an impressive grouping in the niche near the back of the gallery that serves double duty as Rule's office. In origami, flat paper is folded to form an object; for the "Imagiro" sculptures, Saito flattened folded cardboard before casting it in bronze.
All of these tendencies -- his focus on the surfaces, his interest in flatness and his anarchism -- come together in the show's title piece, "108 Blue Cranes." This work dominates the exhibit, which is no surprise considering that it's an installation of 108 nearly identical wall-hung bronzes. The group was done over an eight-month period in 2005 when Saito lived in Ohio. The small squares are perfectly lined up on the gallery's long south wall and wrap around onto the west wall. Each is cast from a stretched canvas. Saito has expertly carried out the casting so that details such as the folds of the fabric on the sides are clearly visible. These sides are covered with a dark patina, allowing them to recede, while the front surfaces are finished in a rich blue-green oxidation, making them stand out.
The initial spark for "108 Blue Cranes" was lit by a friend and fellow stable-mate at Haines, David Simpson, who had done a show of monochrome paintings with colors that aped the look of metal. "I immediately started to think about creating sculptural bronze canvases to do the reverse," Saito writes in his artist's statement.
At first he experimented with a ready-made mass-produced canvas from a craft shop. But the manufactured canvases only came in rectangular shapes, which was a problem for Saito. "I decided I wanted to have a square canvas, because a square is neutral and denies horizontality and verticality," he says. "The horizontal always relates to the landscape and the vertical to the figure." He had a student make a square canvas for him, and that became the basis for each of the 108 elements that make up the piece.
But Saito is a postmodernist, so there's more to it than aesthetic considerations. The number 108 represents the number of spirits recognized by Buddhists. "At the end of the year in Japan, people get religious all of a sudden," notes Saito, "and they go to the temple to ring the bell 108 times," which is meant as a kind of purification ritual. When Saito started the piece, he was dealing with some serious emotional and spiritual struggles, and this tradition of ringing the bell came back to his mind. He decided to use the 108 separate pieces as a stand-in for the tolling bell, as a way to heal and work through his troubles.
The crane reference is also pointed. In his artist's statement, Saito explains that the crane is a symbol of peace in Japan and that origami renditions of the majestic birds are commonly used to express "a wish for good luck, health and happiness for others," which is precisely "the idea of compassion." Though the elements in Saito's piece do not take the shape of birds as the origami ones do, he links his process of producing the separate panels of "108 Blue Cranes" to the repetitious folding of paper needed to create the origami versions. So for him, the sculpture is about his own "wishes for peace and happiness for everyone."
The most recently done sculpture in the show is a direct outgrowth of "108 Cranes." After arriving in Denver, Saito began "Untitled (Starry Night #1)" by purchasing a painted copy of Van Gogh's "Starry Night" and casting it in bronze. Since the surface of the copy had visible brushwork, his sculpture does, too, though the ghost image of the composition is almost impossible to see. We wouldn't recognize "Untitled" as having come out of a copy of "Starry Night" if Saito hadn't told us.
The Saito show at Rule stuck with me, and its contradictory aspects -- the stuff the artist calls "anarchistic" -- began to come through more and more as I thought about it. Superficially, the exhibit looks to be made up of minimalist work, since the pieces are based on things like boxes and flat panels. The installation, too, underscores the minimalist aesthetic, with the pieces seeming to be completely repetitious. But appearances notwithstanding, the show is actually anti-minimalist. This point is clearly made by "108 Blue Cranes," because the elements are actually examples of realism. After all, Saito has made realistic versions of canvases out of bronze. The same realist approach is seen in the other works that depict cardboard or wood. Saito also adds a surrealist element, and his bronze canvases are theoretically linked to surrealism, bringing to mind Meret Oppenheim's famous fur-lined teacup from the 1930s. Oppenheim changed the very nature of an everyday object by denying its reality, substituting a soft material, the fur, for a hard one, the ceramic underneath. In the same way, if from an opposite perspective, Saito takes the pliable material of canvas, transforming it into the rigid stuff of metal.
Yoshitomo Saito's 108 Blue Cranes at Rule is downright spectacular and stands out as one of the best efforts to be mounted in town this season. Take my advice and check it out if you haven't already -- but do it soon, because it's nearing the end of its run.
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