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Tazuko Ichikawa:

Recent Sculpture

At Anton Gallery to April 1

Because it emulates organic forms, the latest work by Kamakura-bred, D.C.-based artist Tazuko Ichikawa is not a bold repudiation of traditional Japanese aesthetics. Still, her sculpture does more than merely tweak Japan’s longstanding reverence for natural shapes and textures. Whereas the austerity of these pieces shows respect for the simple yet exalted role of wood in Japanese art and architecture, Ichikawa plays against the grain as often as with it. The artist’s mode is not traditionalism but minimalism.

Minimalism usually comes in black and white, and in these 11 pieces, Ichikawa mostly favors black. Painted wood is her principal ingredient, although some of these works also enlist wax, rope, or metal screen. The recurring motif of the larger pieces is the curve, a gentle bend that suggests water, fabric, or even tectonic plates. The wax upper level of Interruption (1999), the show’s signature piece, looks like the rectangular slice of omelet that tops tamago sushi.

What these shapes don’t resemble, however, is the natural roundness of a trunk or branch. What is the shape of solid wood flowing? Ichikawa answers her own Zen riddle with pieces like Undulating (2000), in which the curve follows the grain of the lumber—clearly visible through the black oil paint—yet gives it a form that wood could never take in nature. Such works resemble elaborately twisted Victorian stair rails as much as stalks of mature bamboo in an untrammeled forest.

Two pieces, Black Beam I (1999) and II (2000), make the most of the contrast. Both are indeed black-painted beams, but each contains an unpainted segment where the spar’s straightforward form is rounded and the wood’s natural color and texture are allowed to show. The contour of the first beam’s curve is more symmetrical and less dramatic than the second’s, but both use the same strategy. These are spartan pieces, deferential to natural forms; despite the paint and the carving, not an inch of them is uncontrived.

Of course, traditional Japanese art is not strictly natural, either. Formal Japanese gardens are as painstakingly calculated as French ones, if a good deal less grandiose. Indeed, one of the essential conflicts in Japanese aesthetics is between shibui, the idealization of perfected simplicity, and wabi, the appeal of things that are imperfect or unfinished. Ichikawa’s style favors the former, but it is not entirely averse to the power of the latter. In addition to the sections of the Black Beam pieces that are unpainted, two of the other works are entirely free of added pigment: One large, untitled, U-shaped piece is made of light wood, its naturalness opposed only by its manipulated shape. Another, smaller piece is the nonconformist in a series of four boxes, all roughly 9-inch squares; it presents an imperfect circle inside its square, both made of light wood, and the remaining space filled with white wax.

The other boxes are mostly or entirely black, although two of them contrast the black wood with rectangles of black wax—a bit of reductionist visual theater that recalls the, uh, wide variety of black paintings executed in the, uh, golden days of minimalism. When Ichikawa emphasizes the third dimension of these black boxes—by putting a piece of rope behind a screen at the center of one—it suggests the work of Louise Nevelson. But minimalized, naturally.

Comparing Ichikawa’s work to Nevelson’s is of limited usefulness, except to remind viewers that both are Western artists. Looking for the Japaneseness in Ichikawa’s sculpture is entertaining, but European and American artists have been influenced by Japanese art for more than a century. You don’t have to have been raised in Kamakura—a temple town that’s a haven for pre-Sony Japanese culture—to appreciate an aesthetic of nature-rooted simplicity.

In one sense, Ichikawa’s work is indeed simple. Many of these sculptures are made from a single piece of wood, and none of them have more than three essential components. With its hard, white, wax rectangle seeming to flow over a natural-hued rod atop a black box, Interruption seems baroque compared with the Black Beams or the other all-in-one sculptures. It’s a comparative riot of color, shape, and even narrative.

The real story here, of course, is man against nature—and for it, too. Ichikawa’s work celebrates wood while transforming it, exalting her mastery over the material while respectfully revealing its innate character. Although the sculptor has learned the skills of carpentry, her work is not furniture or architecture. If it were, the tension between material and form would vanish: The work would be practical and thus without presumption. There’s plenty of presumption in Ichikawa’s work, however. She dares tamper with nature, albeit never in a way that simply assumes the superiority of sculpture over tree. While painting those black beams, her hand must sometimes falter, alive for a moment to the possibility that the wood she’s working with is more important than anything that’s done to it. CP