An Interview with Hidenori Ishii

Erin Cluley Gallery
Oct 23, 2015 4:23PM

I’ve just arrived at Japanese artist Hidenori Ishii’s Long Island City Studio located in an industrial looking building on the outskirts of the LIC waterfront that offers a killer view of the Midtown Manhattan skyline. Hidenori’s studio is packed with new work; large, vibrant paintings layered with soft floral patterns, black streams and an untrusting psychedelic fog line three of the walls, breaking only for an arrangement of eight small circular molds with a suggestive pink camouflage and a noticeably breast-like quality. An ominous miniature black puddle made of liquid plastic flows over portions of his desk and is met by an orange mesh material (imagine plastic caution fence) that’s been painted subtly with a hint of the same light floral pattern found in the other works filling his small energetic studio. These never-before exhibited art works are destined for Dallas, Texas for his premiere solo exhibition, “Hidenori Ishii: The Black Lake” opening at Erin Cluley Gallery on Friday, October 23rd.

Hidenori Ishii is a Queens-based artist whose interest in the environment originally brought him to the United States from Japan. He arrived to study Environmental Sciences at George Mason University before shifting towards earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts, and then eventually pursuing a Masters in Fine Arts from the Maryland Institute, College of Art, Baltimore. His work approaches the environmental landscape through a fusion of art historical connections, personal narratives, and socio-political subject matter that often explores a post-atomic bomb geography, devastated by nuclear plant meltdowns and in effect, radioactive ecosystems. 

Hidenori Ishii in his Long Island Studio with new works for The Black Late, 2015. Photo Credit: Jacque Donaldson    

Jacque Donaldson: First of all, thank you for having me at your studio. I was so thrilled when Erin Cluley, my former-colleague at the Dallas Contemporary connected us here in New York. I’m here to get a sneak peek of the new paintings you’ve been working on for your upcoming solo show. First, tell me a little bit about what we are looking at. What was your initial idea and how did you approach the show?

Hidenori Ishii: So this is a continuations of what I have been doing, a sort of response to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant meltdown in 2013 and how it’s affecting the community, the environment, and the people. I am learning a lot about the backstories. There are a lot of connections and ties to explore.

JD: This is a subject that you have explored in your past work as well, can you speak on some of the new influences or issues you were thinking about when creating this series?

HI: The IcePlants series came from my response to the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown aftermath and ongoing physical and metaphysical transformation.

As a double meaning of IcePlants, of course, the idea of flowers comes in place ironically as the liveliness of nature is more visible in the contaminated areas due to the lack of forced out human activity, triggered by human errors. Also, the second meaning is like a word play - I believe it is possibly unsustainable considering the geographical condition in Japan as well as the relations’ politics between Japan-United States over the industry. Therefore it’s a suggestive desire for the new sustainable system, like Ice(freeze)-Plants(nuclear plants).    

The Black Lake(A Bluegreen Landscape I) 2015, From Follow the Map series - from A- H - 8 pieces out of 26, 2015, Grow till Tall, 2013 in Hidenori Ishii’s studio. Photo Credit: Jacque Donaldson.      

HI: This is how I started depicting floral patterns as almost like a ground/air in paintings in the series, using silk-screen and the idea of repetitive pattern in halftones. As a silk-screen medium, I chose to use of the synthetic resin called Kuricoat C-720; the green resin was actually used at Fukushima Daiichi site to seal radiation to the ground right after the meltdown. The process, repeated image and material for this ground preparation is very synthetic/artificial, yet the depiction of flowers stays as more "organic/natural image” when the paintings are completed. It is tied to how the nature and flowers came back in their actual natural state lead by the tragic incident from human activity and errors - depicting and suggesting the invisible manufactured threat of radiation in the air. Then it comes after that the additional execution of painting gets done in more abstract, physical and geometric way by hands to suggest the transformation and ambivalent situation/environment. Along with the condition of fear under invisible radiation, one of the challenges has been how to represent something you cannot see and create the environment that’s transitory and void in my work. Trying to achieve that has actually questioned me vice versa as well - observation of something beyond the physical state of things which are mostly lead by reasoning by any means. In this sense, the idea of depiction follows religious/mythological paintings in the western art history before the camera was invented, and I truly believe in making works as a response or extension of art history. Yet another challenge for me is to extend the experience of perception over the entire exhibition space/environment rather than just seeing works individually.

JD: You’ve used imagery taken from live streams of the scene at Fukashima along with personal photographs and found visual content as sources for layering within your work in the past, are you still carrying out those layering techniques with this new body of work?

HI: I am but maybe not as literal,not layering of materials but things that suggest. For these new ones, my tones are very much more subtle. This is starting from a concern about a more airy, quality you can’t really see all at once, things that are invisible but surely there. In this sense, I think of Monet’s water lilies paintings alongside Rothko’s work, and to me they, not all of them from the series, embodies the experience of seeing. So I certainly refer to the spacing and the idea of being frightened by this invisible air, like radiation. This is something I have never experienced. I mean, maybe there is always radiation in some sort of numbered capacity out in the world but not to the extent at the site [Fukashima].  I had a chance to visit that area twice where people are evacuated and the scene was really striking and surreal in a way. It’s really happening and not too far from where my hometown is actually and so that is my personal take on it.

So for this show, as you can see, I am not really just making paintings. I am doing something that is new to me which is more of an environment.  At the same time I am creating an environment, an experience within this closed space and enforcing the idea of interior versus exterior.

Mini Diorama of Erin Cluley Gallery. Photo Credit: Image courtesy of the artist.     

Hidenori walks me over to his work desk and holds up a small diorama of ECG adorned with tiny replicas of all the works in its first proposed hanging. Ishii is not yet committed to this arrangement as the case with most exhibitions, once the artworks arrive in the space everything can change. The large standout painting created for the tallest wall in the center of the gallery, could command the wall near the corner creating a stronger sightline, a different experience entirely for the viewer.

JD: Oh, so this is going to bleed out onto the floor? 

HI: Yes, this is the liquid plastic I use for the body I color it with black pigments and these black things are leaking out, making a true reflection of the mesh painting put on top.

Instantly the link between the black plastic test pours on his desk are connected with the mesh and the effect of the plastic swamp oozing from the plastic floral fence is certainly impactful.

The Black Lake I, 2015
Erin Cluley Gallery

JD: I love how you are playing with the exit door!

HI: I asked Erin, "can I use the exit door, is it okay to block it?" She said “Yeah, go ahead!” I think that would be a problem if you were in New York. So, I am going to install this above the black water over this kind of like that.

I am also doing this window installation, I have been experimenting with this idea. The idea is that you see from the inside how the air is interacting with the actual space. There is confirmation that this is where the light is coming from. But also I am blocking off the ability to escape by blocking the exit door. Every piece has implications of these things. These are more human touches...

Ishii motions toward the eight pink breast-like paintings near the corner, while we walk to the center of the room and land directly in center of the two largest paintings in the room, on adjacent walls. The melting geographic landscape both consumes you with a feeling of beauty and unsettlement.

HI: These two big ones are images taken from this Japanese artist, Buncho Tani, from the 19th century. These are landscapes of not the exact site but close to the location of the Tohoku area and I was really fascinated by the paintings themselves. I was drawn to it so I thought why don’t I take the way it was depicted before it would be terminated or affected by chemicals, by the nuclear disaster that is, and use that idea as a center to layer over what is happening or a transformation of geography and perception of the scene over years. So interacting with time throughout this landscape.

JD: Speaking of inspiration for your work, how do you seek out your source material? Do you search for it or do images come to you so to speak?

HI: I do search for it, but like for these ones, I was really trying to nail a certain mood and sort of untouchable-ness, a certain airiness. These are more depictive but I was also thinking about Rothko’s paintings and how perceptual spaces are defined by blocks of colors. Then kind of denying the air by going over it with really thick paint to make it realize that there is actually a space in there.

He motions toward two stacked paintings in complimentary tones that possess this undescribable fogginess he has been alluding to. The artworks show an almost iridescent array of colors that when separated form a layered atmosphere constructed of a chain link fence, decaying leaves, and soft flowers that fade into the toxic environment. Harsh orange slashes of paint overlay it all. 

Nostalgia IV, 2015
Erin Cluley Gallery

HI: For this image I had collected these leaves and I was also looking at the print of this Japanese artist, Jakuchu Ito. I was really fascinated by how he made these prints. I was intrigued by the significance of these little spots and the holes in the leaves.  Of course, he makes them more perfect round circles intentionally. As I really started seeing that way, you could see even more of this out in human nature. You don’t really see it as much in the city but I started spotting it out in the wild perverse, among nature. First, the bugs are eating the holes out but it is also a part of the trees activities, how they drop those leaves out because that is a sign of infection. So I thought that was kind of interesting and took that concept into my work a lot.    

JD: Tell me a little bit about the title of the show?

HI: The Black Lake, I like this idea of things that are actually, the physicality of the black water. Water in the dark is interesting. I was listening to this Anthony and the Johnson song called “The Lake,” and it’s inspired by Edgar Allen Poe’s poem “The Lake. To--” I had really strong reaction to the poem. It talks about how the wild lake during day turns into a lone lake in the dark, reflecting his solitary soul and his lone imagining in an Eden of that dim lake. Obviously I’m referring to the lake in dark for the show. 

Also back in 1945 after the Atomic bombs dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they called the nuclear fallout Black Rain, that was a mixture of rain, acid and dust. So now they call water that contains any sort of contaminated nuclear particles, black rain. So this is where it kind of is falling into. I am using that as a refraction to view what is happening.

JD: Do you feel like your titles generally add in another layer of meaning or interpretation for the works?

HI: I think so, I think that kind of suggests or gives people more of an idea of what I am actually doing. I would imagine not many people would associate too much with what I am talking about from face value, as in what the image looks like. People think maybe I am just painting pretty flowers.

JD: Right. Then when they read the title there is maybe more of a sinister reaction when you make that connection. How long have you been working on this body of work?

HI: Well, almost really a year. For me, it’s hard because I have many little things.. These mesh ideas, I’ve had for like years and year, but I really didn’t know how I wanted them to fit into the actual piece. So you still have those few ideas that have been cooking, but not really sure how I want to do it. So it comes a few years after. I really want to push these mesh paintings ideas. I think these could really be installed outside as well. I am really trying to expand my vocabulary in pieces and these could be rolled up and shipped anywhere. So I think I am seeing some potentials there and also, I want to make some more sculptural things I have been thinking about. I do have a lot of stuff I want to do, like I am more open to the actual space.

JD: The experience.

HI: Exactly, the experience. So I want to play with that too.

The Black Lake II (A Blue Landscape), 2015
Erin Cluley Gallery

JD: For this show, knowing it was going to be in Dallas, Did you have anything in particular you wanted to present to a Dallas audience? Did you make tweaks with Dallas in mind?

HI: I did, I had a chance to visit in April. Before then, I wasn’t sure what to expect but then I saw the gallery setup and I had a chance to see the art scene. That was the Dallas Art Fair.

JD: Oh, so you came at a very good week, so much was happening!

HI: Right, so I really saw a lot. I went to the Dallas Contemporary opening for the David Salle and Nate Lowman shows and I was impressed. I found it very genuine. People were really into it, I felt like maybe I could do something a little more challenging than I was originally hoping. So I had this mesh idea before, I never thought I would do it in the space but then I saw ECG and I think it will really add an industrial element. At the same time, I think by using these heavy-loaded industrial materials and what they are really proposing about nature, will affect people's space and mind. I think it could be something that maybe people in Dallas could question themselves, as well.

JD: What are your goals for this show?

HI: I have never had an opportunity to work with that beautiful space [Erin Cluley Gallery], and this is a new audience for me, so I want, I mean each piece is important individually as well, but I really want people to see and experience things as a whole. This is something I think we should be aware about and I want people to talk about it. It is something that people should still be talking about even in the future too.

The Black Lake I (A Blue Landscape), 2015
Erin Cluley Gallery

JD: I am curious, did you have any assumptions about Texas or Dallas before visiting? Were there any stereotypes that were proven wrong or right once you arrived?

HI: Yeah, I did. Actually, when I first came to the states to study environmental science at University of Virginia 18 years ago, I stopped in Texas first. We first landed in Dallas actually, we had a seminar we had to attend, and the orientation was up in Wichita Falls.

J: Oh wow, how random and Erin’s from Wichita Falls!

HI: Yes, exactly. That is how we actually got connected. We bonded over it, so to me, it’s really interesting for me because it was my first taste of the States. I still remember this bucket of coke, soft drink or whatever and thinking, this is insane. You know, I came from this country where everything is small and efficient. So that bucket of coke really got me.

So that was my first impression of Dallas. That was almost 18 years ago, and I moved here at 18, so it’s almost full circle returning to where I landed to have this show and I really like that sort of connection. Another connection or tie-in for the show.

JD: Full circle, that is quite wonderful. Thank you so much for opening your studio to me, I can’t wait for Dallas to experience The Black Lake. 

Hidenori Ishii: The Black Lake opens at Erin Cluley Gallery on Friday, October 23, 2015 with a reception from 6:00pm - 8:00pm. 

Erin Cluley Gallery