By BRIAN LIBBY
Yale Union’s End of Summer artist residency concluded on Sunday with open artist’s studios for the six Japanese artists who participated in the program in August. Throughout the massive old building’s three floors, each of the visiting artists seemed to stake out a different corner.
Filmmaker Shu Isaka made use of Yale Union’s cavernous basement, for example, where catwalks extend over a subterranean creek that peeks through the surface. In Isaka’s mockumentary, called “Sprout” and made during the residency, the unique circle-and-squares layout of the nearby Ladd’s Addition neighborhood and the primal geology of Mount St. Helens (which the artists visited earlier this month) combine to provide evidence of some cosmic plan—a disaster or revelation waiting to happen.
Isaka’s film felt like a way of coping with the fact that Oregon and Japan are united by their seismically active zones. The landscape in its beauty and violence always rules.
On the building’s first floor, where Yale Union’s primary studios are located, artist Mayo Koide created an installation called “Off the Ground/Return to the Ground.” It featured a series of delicate little Japanese paper boats floating on the ground while an oscillating lamp with a patterned shade cast a series of changing shadows against the wall. The installation was inspired by a field trip the six artists made during the End of Summer residency to the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center.
“I arrived in this place which I worried might feel as distant as the sky and sea, time and space,” Koide writes in an artist’s statement accompanying the installation. There she learned about immigrants coming to America from Japan “just like me, under different circumstances in a different, but not so distant time.” Those paper boats set against the wide wood floor—sparing, isolated, fragile—were a metaphor for the immigrant experience.
Other artists chose to use their studios not so much to exhibit art but to provide a window into process. Artists Aoi Yamanouchi and Kobayashi Chisei’s studios offered drawings and other small works on paper pinned to the wall and nestled against the floor. Their desks and shelving units overflowed with found objects, natural and human-made: twigs and leaves, Splenda sweetener packets and other throwaway ephemera. Artist Takeshi Yasura’s studio, on the other hand, seemed almost like a mad-scientist’s lab, with liquid pigment dyes, created from wood and other natural materials, moving from one bottle to another through a series of tubes. Then there was Kiyono Kobayashi, who created a combination sound installation and written essay in Yale Union’s small library upstairs.
Though some of the individual works were compelling, they were also by necessity made quickly: little experiments more than polished pieces. As such, it would be a mistake to look at End of Summer or even this open-studio night as being about the artistic product.
“‘Absorb’ is a word that I use a lot,” explains Matt Jay, End of Summer’s founder, describing a series of field trips that the End of Summer residency took the artists on in both natural and urban settings. “They make art but that’s not the focus. We try to strike a balance.” Besides the trip to Mount St. Helens, the group also visited the Oregon coast, as well as such alternative and independent art spaces as Abra Ancliffe’s Personal Libraries Library and the artist-run exhibition space Private Places.
“I’m interested in senses of place, and the relationship between two places,” Jay explains. “I hold onto that stronger and stronger as place becomes less important with technology. I feel like my personality is framed by where I come from.”
Though he now lives in New York City, Matt Jay has spent most of his life in Portland and Tokyo. He’s the son of John C. Jay—the longtime executive creator at Wieden + Kennedy who now leads Fast Retail, parent company of skyrocketing Japanese clothing brand Uniqlo—and Janet Jay, whose career in fashion has taken her from working with iconic fashion designer Diane Von Furstenberg to creating luxury soaps for the boutique Ace Hotel chain. Though they have both served large companies and corporations, John and Janet Jay are all about immersion in arts and culture. In fact, that is John Jay’s career-long message: that brands only matter when they authentically embrace the local cultures from which they emerge.
When Matt Jay was growing up in Tokyo, during the years when his father was establishing W+K’s studio there, he would often spend summers in Portland and invite his Japanese artists friends to visit. Eventually the younger Jay moved on, to New York’s School of Visual Arts and the beginnings of a filmmaking career. But he began to miss taking Japanese friends to see Oregon’s sights and meet locals, and eventually he created End of Summer in response. Now running this artist residency program is a year-round job for Jay: raising funds, soliciting artists and orchestrating a month’s worth of activities.
Besides Sunday evening’s open artist studios, two public lectures earlier in the month helped give the artists and the public a sense of context. Gabriel Ritter, curator and head of contemporary art at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, gave an August 12 talk called “The Genealogy of Nonsense,” while New York-based independent art historian Reiko Tomii’s August 19 talk was called “Wilderness as Method, Contemporaneity as Method.” Each offered chronologies of Japanese artists who in the mid-20th century rebelled against establishment art paradigms and made their own way.
Tomii’s talk highlighted one small artistic act from 1969—when Japanese artist Horikawa Michio sent a series of river stones through the mail to a friend. Each smooth stone, shaped by centuries under water, was wrapped in netting and tied to a small tag with the address to which it should be mailed, under the title “The Shinano River Plan 11 (Mail Art by Sending Stones).”
Viewing the artists’ work in the open studios a week later, I thought of their End of Summer residency as something similar to Michio’s 1969 performance-by-post: after years of being shaped by one place, they were launched far away, to another. It’s a jolting experience yet also one that establishes new connections. What seems most promising about the residency is not just what these artists did here, but that some of them—like Matt Jay himself—may keep coming back.
There will be one additional chance to check out the work of End of Summer artists—and not just this group. Beginning with a First Thursday opening on August 30 from 5:30 to 7:30 and on view throughout September, PDX Contemporary Art’s group show will feature six artists from the 2016 edition of the End of Summer residency, alongside five artists on the gallery’s roster.