By SAMUEL EISEN-MEYERS
Ritsuko Ozeki’s recent show “Distance” at the Froelick Gallery was full of prints, specifically aquatints, and selected paintings. Some of these were small, and some were very large assemblages of smaller prints. They depicted ordinary things—houses, staircases, trees, dolls, a dress, but each specific piece had an unusual transformative power that appeared to plumb the deeper channels of the human condition.
As I circled the thematically grouped artworks, I felt loss, dread and revitalization. Ozeki’s simplified color palette and spare imagery seemed abstract, a radical reduction of means, and that made them seem allegorical somehow and by that route managed to connect directly with my own memories and stories.
The story that generated “Distance” in Ozeki is a widely shared one, at least in her native Japan—the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan on March 11, 2011, and led directly to the drama around the Fukashima nuclear power plant disaster. Ozeki says that she found herself confronted and overtaken by emptiness, a void felt by many Japanese and even around the world.
After a time when she couldn’t create new work, Ozeki found herself identifying with natural objects and simple forms, first in a show called “Scene” and then in “Distance.” She emailed this account from Japan.
“After the great tragedy attacked Japan in 2011, I had a hard time getting back to create an artwork. The show “Scene” was the first show after the tragedy. I used black empty frame images and also used stairs, hallway, and forest as motif to create “the story” that fill into the empty frames. They were all created for mourning/memorial meaning. Four years past, then I was able to objectively observe what’s happened to the area where the earthquake attacked. The “Distance” means not only expressing the length as distance, but also using emotional separation as distance too.”
Although deeply affected by the events, Ozeki was able to construct a “scene” and framework for a show that captured a deep and raw space.
The large front room at the Froelick gallery was filled with ten of Ozeki’s current works. Each piece triggered a sensation of empathy, an atmosphere created through her artistic process that invited me to be a part of her personal story. I was drawn almost immediately toward House 2013 (39’’ x 39’’) but later I recognized why I started my journey through the show with a different work. Down-Up, 2014 (98’’ x 137’’) located on the largest wall of the gallery is both very large and very intricate. More importantly, it seemed to have a conversation with the rest of the show, explaining the broader origin of the root themes.
“This work was composed with 12 pieces of Etching plate that indicate twelve months. The work was printed on Japanese paper called Mitsumata. A sheet of paper carried 4 plate images. Then combined printed multiple sheets to form one piece such as quilt work. Also I collaged small printed images on the work to complete image.” (Ozeki)
Take a few steps back and Down-Up becomes a historical roadmap of Ozeki’s experiences and at the same time a freedom from an immediate need for explanation. Roughly 140 small squares make up the entirety of Down-Up. They are etched with images of overturned trees, falling ladders, jungle gyms and geometric shapes hinting at overturned houses. These intricate designs invite patient and careful appreciation but also create a sense of movement through the assemblage.
I don’t know why I was so attracted to this work initially, and I believe that’s part of what made it so successful. Before I knew Ozeki’s exact story, I could feel the energy in the piece, its power and void. It forced me to ask deeply personal questions about my relation to her life without knowing her words, only her interpretation of what she felt.
In Landscape-river (2013) and Landscape-pond (2013), circular movements accented by very heavy strokes create an atmosphere for forms of houses. I had the sense that the houses didn’t quite belong in the delicately created setting of the abstract landscape. But a small triangle in Landscape-river tied it all together, by binding nature and physical objects. These two aquatint pieces established the prominence of the “house” in Ozeki’s work and maybe in our own existences. These pieces were washed with a dark colored medium and heavy use of shadow that left my eye traveling to all borders of the work. Ozeki’s own description is direct: “I created the image of an indication of previous existence of people, such as leftover houses after Tsunami disaster.” (Ozeki)
In the soft ground aquatint House, Ozeki made an impression of lace and fabric on the copper plate used for this piece, which created a rugged but beautiful texture on the print. Its waterlogged effect, heavy border lines and scratched accents contain almost concealed triangles and circles that gave it a hidden voice. In a completely separate spectrum and time period of the artistic world, this piece brought to mind Jackson Pollock’s Guardian of the Secret (1943). I’m not sure it’s important to recognize this house, because it’s not specific in that way. But it’s difficult to pass it without reviewing our own houses, real and thematic, and the secrets and deep knowledge they harbor.
House allowed me to recognize that I wasn’t looking at individual pieces of art in “Distance.” Small prints made up Down-Up; all the works in the show made up something bigger as well. The pieces were linked together, by materials and technique, sure, but It was as if Ozeki was reminding us that the secrets and stories we carry may be hidden from us, until something or someone is able to remind us that they exist, even for a moment.