In the Fibers of Traditional Japanese Paper, Cyoko Tamai Finds Possibility

Equipped with a fine-pointed steel pen and sumi ink, Japanese artist Cyoko Tamai aggressively and skillfully deconstructs washi paper. But this isn’t just any ordinary washi paper—the paper Tamai uses has been handcrafted by the Japanese National Living Treasure Hamada Sajio, and his wife Setsuko. The traditional Japanese paper is crafted in a manner that preserves the long thin fibers—a factor that is integral to Tamai’s work. Through a singular process, which the artist developed specifically after coming across Sajio’s paper, Tamai manipulates each individual strand in her quest for “the finest line,” breaking down her medium into the smallest elements with which it is composed. Her recent works featured in “Against Gravity” at Ronin Gallery.

In conjunction with Asia Contemporary Art Week (ACAW), Ronin presented an exhibition of 30 of Tamai’s most recent works. The show documents how the artist’s craft has evolved since “Floating Paintings,” her show at the gallery last year. That show was the culmination of her 2014 summer residency at the Japan Society—a prestigious residence that traces its origins back to a fellowship program in the late 1950s and ’60s that was a launching pad for influential Japanese artists such as Shiko Munakata and Yayoi Kusama.

“The fibers on the surface that have been touched by the [steel] nib are fuzzed up to two inches high, defying gravity. The painting becomes semi-three dimensional, a departure from the traditionally flat surface of Japanese paintings,” Tamai has said  describing her technique. The artist stains the individual fibers, adding color, while also creating dimension and giving her works their unique fluffy texture.

Born in Kochi prefecture, on the Japanese island of Shikoku, Tamai received a BFA in Music from Tokyo University of the Arts and an MFA in Japanese Painting. She often credits her study of music and sound as being a major influence on her work. In describing her process Tamai has explained, “Before I begin a piece, I do not decide the final shape or consider an eventual beauty. My final work is a result of the accumulation of each rip. The first rip leads to the next, revealing the spectrum of possibility, and I choose one from these possibilities. I do this again and again.”


—Jennifer Baum Lagdameo

Against Gravity” is on view at Ronin Gallery, New York, Oct. 21st–Nov. 14th, 2015

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