August 22, 2021
Sculptural Autopsies with Yasue Maetake
[Pt. 1]By Addison Bale
[ Author’s note: This text traces month’s of correspondence and time spent with sculptor Yasue Maetake. To reflect the diverse nature of our communication, this article has been hewn out of email exchanges, journal entries, notes, observations, and some recorded content. The linear sequence of the writing is unimportant: any lines and paragraphs can be read variably, theoretically in or out of context, mismatched and replaced with lines from other sections. The only important thing to know is that my words as the author are non-italicized. I use italics when quoting Yasue’s words or emails, when quoting her husband, David, and for word or concept definitions. I use italics as opposed to quotation marks for Yasue’s words because most of the time I am not actually quoting her, but interpreting and restating. ]
A broken-down car, palette-fulls of Benjamin Moore paints, scrap metal, spare ladders, rolling shelf units, panes of glass, a charbroil grill, green True Value bins, aluminum rods, a blue steel rolling staircase, chassis, wood palettes, filing cabinets, planters, spare fuel tanks, rust-covered wheelbarrows, wagons, trollies, a forklift, crutches and a walker, trash cans, piping, milk crates, tarps, foam core, shopping carts, folding table, scrapwood, 2-by-4s, etc, all sit in the lot behind Platz Hardware True Value where Yasue also keeps her studio.
Email from Yasue:
Hi Addison, you are welcome to stop by my studio anytime. Whether during the week w/o Ai or weekends w/ Ai. I am also fully starting to focus on the studio. For you to observe my real life, how messy and horrible practice, it might be interesting to look at. All past publications embellished my studio practice with cool material engagement, with cool pants with artistic paint marks on it but the reality is really more depressing and miserable being covered by dust than you think. Also, on weekends, I am mad and yelling at Ai while she is climbing 12 feet high scaffolding and tries sneaking to drive a forklift (seriously. she learned by watching David) so, there is no "cool picture" of artists meditating on their practice or a "smiling mother."
Just letting you know for your head-up!
Now I wanna kick myself for not having recorded more of our conversations. I feel like Francis Bacon painting people from memory and soiled photos towards an image of his own devices (often beautiful, often monstrous). I am scanning my notes and re-membering the things Yasue and I have done and discussed over the past few months of correspondence.
Politics, for one. Do you consider your work political?
I say, “No,” but this is partly because I know that it is not received that way.
Day with Yasue and Ai-chan ~ May 1st, 2021. From my journal:
Met at Myrtle-Wyckoff. Ai-chan eating a hotdog. We go to Printed Matter photo show on St. Marks place to see Gryphon (Rue), who is curating/founding D R O N E gallery at Hudson & Chambers St. Stopped at Sunrise Mart & Yasue bought a week’s worth of groceries; Ai-chan nonstop singing/complaining and creating diversions by talking to strangers everywhere we go.
Back on the subway, Ai-chan fake-crying.
Out of the subway, eating umeboshi & onigiri & curry pan & pocky in front of D R O N E, talking about family & poetry. Ai running around, entertaining a woman who is eating a salad.
Inside the new gallery space, Yasue checks to see if this chunk of exposed copper pipe in the cement floor could be used as a conductor for something…Ai-chan & I have moments of calm as she rests on a white pedestal & drinks Yakulte. I ask what she thinks about her Mamma’s art & she gives me a thumbs up. At the same time, artist Viktor (Timofeev) is in the process of muraling on the back wall of the gallery with water-based pastel, hand-painting/smudging them on.
Then → → → → walk across Chambers St over to Chinatown, stopping in playground for Ai-chan to play for a bit, then carrying Aichan all the way to galleries. First, M23 gallery, where a minor incident occurs: Ai-chan taps a resin-brick sculpture with her tiny foot, Yasue goes to re-adjust bricks, the gallery assistant screams at them, sharply and loudly and I am startled from across the room:
“Don’t touch it! Do you know how much that costs?? I am shaking!!!”
Ai-chan scared; Yasue, a sculptor, knows that resin is not fragile…
Then ATM Gallery: artist Kyoko Hamaguchi’s minimal houses of colored threads suspended in hand sanitizer dispensers. Ai-chan chats with gallery owner and people on the street. A cute puppy embraces Ai-chan. Yasue and I enjoy talking to Kyoko—then time to go!
Ai-chan cries, says she is tired and wants Mamma to carry so I take the grocery bags and Yasue takes Ai-chan and I walk them to the subway, promptly realize I have lost my wallet.
Addison, maybe you can briefly explain: Chan (ちゃん) expresses that the speaker finds a person endearing. In general, -chan is used for the names of young children, close friends, and babies. It may also be used for cute animals and lovers.
Notes after D R O N E show, “The Location of Serenity” :
Without a photo reference, I recall Yasue’s sculpture like a reaper, like a harpy, like an open heart with long stents, the stilted legs of Dali’s hungry elephants, bag-like and ribbed against a cloudless blood sky—the piece is larger than a person, except maybe an NBA player, though it assumes an airy, almost avian posture echoed in some of her smaller works. Unlike Yasue’s more recent sculptures, “Ascending Industrial Bouquets,” is not made up of animal bones or seashells. Very skeletal nonetheless. This I remember. It is an anemic couplet of steel, brass, and copper with one semi-glossy shock of resin at the waist, and a second, stooped burst of resin suspended at the peak. Baby resin and Mamma resin. Somehow, a composite of materials found and manipulated still draws out the soul of something.
Am I interested in owning the artwork? No, I told you. I don’t like to have the work around me. The urge ends in the studio. This urge—that is the urge to make, is unconditional and a bit scary—logically I can explain my other responsibilities, but the urge to make things is distinct and probably inexplicable, but nobody asks about this.
What do people ask you about?
Normally, they ask me how I got the camel bones. Then they ask me how much they cost.
Is it possible to understand the motivation that provokes you to make sculptures?
I should write down my thoughts during my process because something very close to the answers for my own process pass through my mind but then I forget. It’s all very elusive, come and go, come and go, so I fully rely on this elusive, ephemeral image. When I nail down this almost-there-form, it is about trapping and archiving it instinctively. Everyday I am thinking about these things.
Seashells from the beach. Some bones too (camel). Most bones sourced from a taxidermist, some found. Many materials found or given. A neighbor is removing tons of bamboo overgrowth from their yard, so Yasue takes it. I show up at her studio in a moment when she is cutting and curving and grinding down rattan (similar to bamboo but different) as an echo of her other recent materials acquisition: old trumpets and trombones from a hoarder on Craigslist.
I am back at Yasue’s studio, sitting between a rolling steel staircase and some rusting filing cabinets in the back of Platz Hardware True Value, her husband David’s store. We are talking about many things and then David comes out to say something—I take the opportunity to ask him about Platz:
How did you get involved with Platz in the beginning?
David: They were gonna shut it down, so my brother and I decided to buy. Because the Depots were coming to New York, all the old hardware stores were shutting down. Gottlieb’s, Harry’s—and I’ve been coming here since I was Ai’s age. You see one of my eyebrows, see this scar? That’s from this store when I was 4. If one more hardware store closes in New York, then we are the oldest continuously running hardware store in the city.
How long have you had the store now?
D: 21 years. Almost 22.
Yasue: Yes, so finally cleaning the junk out.
D: You know all those little comments that you try to stick in there, it’s not necessary.
Y: But do you know a lot of idiot art-folk think that this mess is an inspiration of mine!
D: No—I’m an artist also and this is my creation [gesturing to the variable heaps of refuse and backstock piled up in the ass-end of Platz.]
Y: Actually, David is good. He has a very good formal sensibility. Better than many artists. He has good eyes and is good with materials. And physics.
Ai-chan stumbles over with Yasue’s phone in her hand, singing along to something, then singing loud enough to drown out the conversation. An ice cream truck jingles down the block. Yasue, referring to Ai-chan, says, She knows the vibe! Now we have more critical talk so she sings and distracts. She’s mean.
What is transmutation for you? Is it for us to see the unification of materials through form? Is it about the inanimate becoming free standing? Or brass sharing a leg with bones and bone sharing an arm with glass and glass sharing a spine with seashell…
Unification is certainly an interest of mine but not as an end goal. I view unification as a part of the transitional process of the materials and then we keep going—there is no stopping at unity. Transformation, changing—yes, changing—but after changing, I do not declare the finished product. It is about ever-changing, ever-evolving; continuity where I might have anticipated a conclusion or a logical terminus. For me, none of the sculptures are at their end, per se. The end remains arbitrary, even as I accept the end of labor. Movement and dynamics are how I see everything—this is how I view the world of substance.
Realistically, I am using stone, concrete, animal bone, and metal—these impenetrable hard substances, but my worldview, at least metaphorically if not also metaphysically, is that the distinctions between vapor, liquid, solid, are all unified by the same atomic units, and therefore, their barriers are always, on some level, psychologically imposed. I impose my perception of the world through the image of the sculpture. In looking, viewers can sense this fluid, transforming, dynamic materiality.
Ironically, you perceive the world through permeable distinctions, and yet you understand better than most people the actual compositional qualities that make every material unique. You know from experience what it’s like to cut through bone vs. steel, for example.
Yes, well I deal with the reality of these hard forms but live in a fantasy of transmutation, which is what the show is about.
Continuity; not just abrupt optimism, but the aspirational journey at the confluence of tune, arriving and re-arriving at beginnings which are naturally optimistic. To begin again is in some way to always repeat. To either doom oneself to repetition or open oneself up to the permutations. The inanimate materials throw out some suggestions to the sculptor, Yasue, throughout the process: save me, assemble me, cut me, smooth me, grind me, melt me, weld me, glue me, fix me, break me, burn me, polish me, splice me, hoist me, name me, repeat me, etc. Brass plumbing rods become korean chopsticks become the bones of wings hinged to the grooves of actual bones, etc.
Politics are undeniably present, always, somehow, but some people speak louder than others. People do not look for political angle in my sculptures; they look at my work and assess whether it is utilitarian or not, decorative or not. They tend to isolate the identifiable features in the sculpture and then they want to know, how much do camel bones cost? Where did I find them? And these stones, and these metals—where to find and how much?
Addison, can you write a brief sentence about this sculpture?
I want to quote and introduce you by saying : "My fellow Addison Bale told me "This piece is blablablbal XXXXXXXXXXXXX" that I really appreciate. Now we are working on some creative writing project together. etc etc....."
“Ascending Industrial Bouquets”: Grim reaper of brass bones and harpy’s wings: a sour-patch polymer with secret soul and it’s stalwart mother with the metal hood. (Baby resin and Mamma resin!)
Another Japanese sculptor suggested that Americans focus on the material components of a sculpture over form/balance because there are no earthquakes here. Form is taken for granted. Precarity is little more than thematic. In Japan, form is the essential question at the heart of sculpture.
(Yasue’s skinny-legged sculpture, “Ascending Industrial Bouquets,” for example, might not survive in Japan!)
Symbolism key to Yasue’s most used materials, according to the author:
Bone = beastial death (though since it is repurposed, it is either under examination or given a symbolic new life. Therefore, bone simultaneously represents autopsy, medical science, truth, and reincarnation.) Seashells = mathematics, repetition, whimsy, ancient history, and overfishing. Metal of any kind = human genius, hardness, softness, irony, cyborgs, and most importantly, the future. Stone of any kind = western fetishism, monotheism, and obesity. Paper = weather systems, fruit, and the Edo Period. Plant matter = motherhood, neighborliness, and non-judgement. Resin = regret, remorse, and retrograde.
Even though I poetically claim to not see the boundaries between materials and states of vapor liquid, and solid, it is true that on the molecular level there is in fact no boundary. Sound is included in this.