November 16, 2021
Sculptural Autopsies with Yasue Maetake
By Addison Bale
Yasue outside NADAx Foreland in Catskill, NY. Photo taken by Matt Austin.
[Author’s note: An important thing to note is that my words as the author are non-italicized. I use italics when quoting Yasue’s words or emails 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. ]
Addison, can you edit the below?
The truth is, I wanted to go to Japan for my upcoming show, but I found I couldn't, so I decided to invite my parents to come spend two months here this summer. During their stay, I have felt like I'm standing around like an idiot, moving at my middle-age speed like a turtle, facing a child and elderly parents whose company is like time-lapse video/film/montage? Passing in front of me—my daughter perhaps became 2 inches taller and I noticed that my parents needed more naps.
And I questioned, what I was doing?
The weekend of August 28, 2021, we went upstate to the town of Catskill, NY, to see Yasue’s sculpture in NADA x Foreland. Her piece, Mass Inception, was well-positioned on the top floor of the exhibition illuminated by a corner of daylight pouring in from the south- and west-facing windows. Yasue introduced me to her gallerists, Elle Burchill and Andrea Monti of Microscope. We gave them a riso-printed copy of our article, Sculptural Autopsies with Yasue Maetake Pt.1. Yasue got to work, talking, moving around with people. I cruised the galleries, latching on and off to acquaintances for an hour or so before assuming a wallflower's posture at the edge of the room, performing intrigue while idling between the sculptures, arranging myself in relation to Yasue’s position, close by without obviously hovering.
We took several coffee breaks. Just outside the fair at HiLo café, our friend Daniel Giordano had two gross and gorgeous sculptures dominating the window display. Ai-chan, who just learned to use the phone, was calling Yasue repeatedly.
Back inside the exhibit, Yasue was spinning Mass Inception, trying to decide on it’s best angle in relation to the light coming through the windows. Microscope’s Elle and Andrea assisted the process of angling. I resumed my position by the window, pretending to write stuff down in my notebook.
Later, we found surprisingly yummy Thai food on Main Street and Yasue dealt with Instagram, then fielded some very basic questions from me about sculpture. What do you think of the Pietà? What do you think of Richard Serra’s work? Isamu Noguchi?
I know I shouldn’t say it but when I think about any art of the old masters, I feel contemporary sculpture is often embarrassing... Myself included… Richard Serra and Anselm Keifer are influences for sure… Noguchi, perhaps… but the best of all is Toya Shigeo...
Yasue Maetake, “Mass Inception,” 2021. Terracotta, epoxy, polyurethane, coated styrofoam, synthetic paint, steel, marble, resin, natural soil, found bird’s feather. 45 x 43 x 41 inches. Photo taken by Matt Austin; courtesy of the artist and Microscope Gallery, New York.
It’s just such a waste— $300 dollars for one night in Catskill? I mean, there is not even space for two people! But it’s my mistake. I misunderstand the pricing— it’s just such a waste.
The Airbnb listing was misleading. You showed me the photos— I also expected at least a bedroom separate from the kitchen.
It doesn’t matter what the situation; $300 for me to come one night to Catskill, a day I don’t take Ai-chan to gymnastics or be with her, be at home preparing for my new class’s syllabus tomorrow. I just feel it is a bit embarrassing, this being-an-artist thing sometimes. Why should this be a priority when I have a daughter? I feel bad. Doing all this— networking and leaving Ai-chan makes me feel that way.
It’s not about being an artist. We could be having this same conversation in regards to any other occupation all the same— for any number of reasons we become too busy, pulled apart; art isn’t embarrassing, it’s an occupation. And anyway, Ai-chan likes your work, she told me.
Yes but then Ai-chan gets bored of me. She literally says, No not sculpture again! And this is the 3rd Saturday in a row that I don’t take her to gymnastics. Ai-chan is not progressing as she was before...
What would be better, to be busy for some other reason?
I think about those mom’s that do everything for the children, putting them in music lessons, in sports; I feel I am such a self-centered mom sometimes. It feels silly because I am not some big important artist, I just have one piece in this fair and take my whole weekend to come here, to Catskill, spend money to come here, stay overnight, talk about sculpture. These objects are silly. Ai-chan could be learning things, being taken to lessons that maybe she loves or is prodigy and she grows up with a talent far superior to mine... but I will never know because I don’t take her. That is the irony.
Is Ai-chan particularly good at gymnastics?
Not really. But she is tough. She is better at climbing on scaffolding actually. And the forklift.
[...] untalking, wordless shimmers of Yasue’s bone, metal, and stone compositions—the anti-narrative bedrock of her practice, which is a performance of tactility and translating the vision into object. In this way, her sculptures yield a totemic power, evoking the smoke of her, the artist’s intentions. On the other hand, there is no telling what they say. Just like Yasue, they are non-didactic. Who do the sculptures address? Do they speak in first-person, third-person? Or do they simply say, you.
What if I write directly to you? Like a letter.
You. I think I mentioned once this knack I have of hardly recording anything and my tendency to neglect note-taking until later on, trying to remember whatever it was we discussed together. While this has emerged as an integral exercise in our creative approach to dialoguing, it is also painstaking for me to get at the heart of things that left an impression on me, fighting to reprise a memory with some clarity. Even as you create new sculptures and I write these words, we are yielding to a consensual erasure of many things.
Whether to reenact the things we say solely from memory or to rely on the recording device for evidence: I accept both without making a hierarchy amongst them.
But the most important thing is that I know how integral the absence of a recording device is— I mean, for us. Not because the connoisseurs tell me to choose so as to romanticize the artist's perception; we simply and inevitably keep forgetting to record our conversations. And the fact is that, because of this, the most important evidence has been missed, like our natural dialogue, or even a snapshot of us in Catskill. Now I know why I like Western classism. And Bacon.
Can you tell me what “Mass Inception” is about?
“Mass Inception” was referring to mother nature, mood changes during pregnancy, and a more voluminous approach to form. It is an eruption caught in motion, a volcanic limbo between the land and the air. It is also my body as I became a small mountain, a mother.
I built that foundation made of steel armature covered with urethane foam whose shape was curved by literal burning with blow torch and then coating with varnish. This was right before I retired from the studio practice for a while when I realized I was pregnant and I could not go on working with such materials. I walked away— I had Ai-chan. I thought, ah, now is my chance to stop with sculpture. I was so happy to become less competitive, less pressure to make. I was a mother. That was four years ago.
I came back to the piece this year and applied the surface material which is like a faux-earth: terracotta blended with epoxy resin and spread over the surface of the charred foam.
Did you see this piece in your head before you began? Or is its assemblage a reaction to the process of sculpting? While sculpting, are you re-interpreting and reacting to unplanned directions?
I have the vision in mind. I get the visions beforehand. They can change, but I see the piece in my head always.
When do you get visions? Are you always open or do they come under particular circumstances?
I get them frequently, doing mundane things. I don’t need travel or to go foraging for inspiration. Actually I have the clearest ideas just doing my routines— I live over there, I take Ai-chan to school across the street, I go to my studio behind Platz where I find David— I see through this, and in moments of isolation. I have the best visions in the bath.
When you finish a sculpture, is it normally close to what you envisioned?
Have you thought about the timing?
Should we have waited to write these things— waited for when artists are typically remembered, when you are old or dead?
You just turned 47. You just spoke to me— you speak to me. You tell me about the cars drifting through the mountain roads in Japan. You saw them racing when you were a teenager. You tell me about driving in New York and seeing the architecture passing in blurs of color and material, fusing with your thoughts of sculpture, thoughts of combining what you have like terra cotta and urethane foam, paper, stone, brass...
The toughness of being my gallerist is not because I make a grotesque aesthetic. The toughness is that the gallerist almost has to treat/handle my work as a dead artist's rather than a living artist’s, i.g. the gallerist has to curate the work across the artist's age or time period of a life. My life.
I’m in your studio again as we turn our attention now to translating Pt. 1 and organize a print edition to accommodate the Tokyo Art Book Fair in October (meanwhile, I am writing this, Pt. 2).
By cc’ing me on every email with the translators, Rumi and Nahoko, I intuited that you want me google-translating every correspondence, observing as you coordinate the rewriting of our article, Sculptural Autopsies with Yasue Maetake Pt. 1, into Japanese. There and again I see you all separating the English into fragments, questioning word choices and double-entendres, slowly equating the language to its Japanese mirror-image.
As my original text became logographic, unintelligible to me, you can now read our article for the first time in your mother tongue and understand with clarity what was previously oblique in English. You describe to me the decisions Rumi and Nahoko made when ascribing certain English words to Japanese characters; how seemingly subtle distinctions in their interpretations influenced how to approximate sentiments from the original English text into Japanese.
To lose understanding of my own article was to look once again at sculpture, or at least at yours, which dictate no narrative and no single language in their exposition— if I snag on them, something liquid and sentimental might escape me, dispensing a thought in its wake, a hard-to-say, fleeting thing that suggests I simply look twice at the shapes you’ve made.
Email regarding the word “reaper” and its counterpoint in Japanese:
彼岸" leads to the "boundary" or “barrier” which appears later in the writing. "彼岸" is an unstable "辺獄" while "あの世" is an absolute place, and that which is the antonym to "in this world". Therefore "彼岸" is more oscillant.
Perhaps you might think "辺獄" could also work as a translation. But the character "獄" is too strong and thus, implies hell unnecessarily. Since “Grim Reaper” will appear later, I also want to neutralize the questionable strong connotation of death and hell. Another reason to use “彼岸" is an image of a field and river full of natural light. That is more suitable for my "Ascending Industrial Bouquet," whose translucent body accumulates the light. “彼岸" also means Spring and Autumn equinox, which is my birthday, too.
As for the “大鎌”, I wanted to use the character “刈” which refers more a simple device (a scythe) with a more linear character form, as opposed to “大鎌” which is more arched and compact. The skeletal armature of “Ascending Industrial Bouquets” consists of the linear structure.
See your hands turning the steering wheel of the car, which turns the wheels of the car, which brings you onto Forest Ave and home again. See yourself at home, alive and surprised (because you are a somewhat bad driver, or so says David). See yourself move automatically through the home. See yourself move deliberately through the studio: see yourself assembling, responding to the thoughts of laundry, thoughts of your daughter, welding certain arguments into lobes of resin, into cages of effort, her little knees, barely recovered from a scrape, air barely different than mesh, oil, seashell, wedding veil, hot glue, photos from your life coming through the glue, sculptures interrupting, air on air, thinly, daily, more shape, more memory in the form of a career, in the form of paper, wet pulp drying on metal whose rust leaves striking blue stains.
Working on the translation of “reaper” became the same intensity as my sculpture making, in which I am constantly maintaining the oscillation between the two places where I regard only the essence can exist. I am very happy to come up with the word "彼岸."
At this point, you perhaps understand that Japanese (especially Chinese) is based on the symbolism called logogram. I am living in a hieroglyphic view of the world while Japanese also uses a half phonographic system, like English. Hope this experience helps you understand. But even more so, I simply wanted to share with you this linguistic epiphany and happiness.
As we talk, your life becomes a story we both remember, a memory imparting onto me or a confusion lying in wait... your patience with this portrait as I write this all down, as I try to tell us both about your life.