by Veronica Ceci
It is impossible to discern whether, for artist Koichi Yamamoto, Morocco was the beginning of color, or the end of black. Decades spent perfecting his printmaking technique had been done, like the old masters, in only black inks. However, something changed in Morocco, the site of the last of three consecutive artist residencies he had this year.
Was the Jardin Majorelle so intensely hued, so enchanting, that the artist could simply no longer deny the importance of color in the world? Or was it that at the end of his sabbatical journey where his work had already changed physically and conceptually, it was simply time to open up to a full palette? Although there is no single answer, the pursuit of one holds intrigue.
As an undergraduate 30 years ago, underneath Portland’s colorless skies, Koichi Yamamoto was introduced to the printmaking process. A wide range of possibilities fall under printmaking, but the artist would go on to specialize in intaglio. The numerous approaches to intaglio share in common the starting point of a flat plate, generally made of metal, into which the artist creates recesses that will hold ink. At the Pacific Northwest College of Art, Yamamoto learned the suite of tools and acids that can gouge, poke, press, cut and etch shapes into the metal. The artist scraped black ink across the surface of a plate, driving it deep into the scratched lines and etched low spots.
“…slowing down gave me time to compose form in different ways.”
A few years later, the artist would repeat this motion at the Bratislava Academy of Art in Slovakia, in the shadow of a barely tinted castle. The Academy of Art in rainy Poznan, Poland also played a part in his romance with the black line. The artist recalls how the physicality of the process drew him in. “Removing metal and the response of the copper is something I truly enjoy and find pleasure in.”
The unhurried pace of production enforced by this antiquated technique created time for him to innovate on the centuries old tradition. “Slowing down,” he recalls,” gave me time to compose form in different ways.” In doing so, Yamamoto developed his own unique method of creating imagery using mirroring, specifically termed bisymmetry.
The concept of bisymmetry is the basis of the images used in psychology’s Rorschach tests. Anyone who has folded paper in half, cut a diagonal oval and then unfolded it to create a perfect heart shape was making their own bisymmetric image. Although the result is far more complicated, the notion of folding paper to get two matching, mirrored sides is also the basis of the artist’s intricate pieces.
The resulting imagery appeals to our human tendency to find recognizable images in any mass of lines and shapes. With each half of an artwork perfectly balanced with the other, even arbitrary combinations synthesize to become faces and bodies. Yamamoto has constructed a body of work featuring impossibly structured yet tangled layers of black lines, in which the viewer can see what is actually depicted as well as their own response to the piece’s duality. As this coupling only occurs via printing, that act is just as important to Yamamoto’s work as the creation of the plates.
The shift from years of working in black to the introduction of color did not happen suddenly. The artist’s first venture into new territory started with a simple change of scenery, when he arrived in Kauai for the first residency early this year. The Hawaiian island offered up naval construction for inspiration, and from it Yamamoto developed a series called Floating Architecture.
Pieces in the series share a crisp rendering of the implied weight of an object, unfinished yet substantial, accented by hints of anatomy. In the pictured work, layer upon layer of deliberately rendered lines describe what could be a cutaway diagram of a vessel’s prow, the geometric design of its cargo holdings revealed. This image mingles with forms referencing musculature and compact grid lines. The overall effect is somewhere between a structure coalescing and being stared down by an irate insect.
Kites are “the bridge between illusion of form on the surface of paper and visualization of air movement in the atmosphere.”
From Kauai, he traveled to the Mojave Desert, where his prints took on an entirely new physical form. Bringing Hawaiian bamboo with him to Joshua Tree National Park, Yamamoto made kites from his prints. He calls their production “the bridge between illusion of form on the surface of paper and visualization of air movement in the atmosphere.” The prints themselves are a record of the physical act of printing, but are static. It is only via the act of flying that a kite achieves its true expression. In collaborating directly with the natural world by way of the wind, Yamamoto invites the invisible into his art. Commenting on its power, he states, “Without entirely understanding the flow of air, we are still capable of utilizing the energy.” This vitality literally takes the work to new heights.
Perhaps the sight of his work soaring against the unfathomable blue of the desert sky propelled the artist closer to varying his pigment, but it was the mosaics of Marrakesh that ultimately lead Yamamoto to pick up a can of colored ink.
“To share and to communicate requires a vehicle. Kites are my vehicle and printmaking my language.”
The naval architecture in Hawaii, followed by the creation of small-scale architectural structures in the Mojave led the artist to further exploration of architecture. The final residency in Spain and Morocco placed him in the midst of Moorish construction. The sophisticated geometries of Arabic tile work have ties to the intricate initial abstraction of Yamamoto’s engraved lines. The numerous evenly spaced lines circumscribing form in an engraving and the recurrent interlocking shapes of a decorated minaret both use repetition as a key component.
For Yamamoto, this is essential to a mental process via which discovery can occur:
“There is a critical moment of discovery and advancement that comes from the repetitive process. Evolution of ideas and adaptability in various and unexpected situations is the key of progress… The natural selection of ideas and method, through the history of humanity, we are in this endless process of continuous growth as a living being on this planet.”
Every stage of the artist’s production is a part of this cycle of repetition. The path is not a circle but a spiral: each successive iteration expanding possibility while encompassing all the lessons of previous actions. When Yamamoto scrapes ink across the surface of an engraved intaglio plate, the operation is a cumulation of every time he has done so, while also being a completely new moment. With this perspective, we might conclude that the introduction of color is not the end of black for Koichi Yamamoto, but rather an augmentation of all he has done thus far, growing through repetition.
Koichi Yamamoto is Associate Professor/ Printmaking at the University of Tennessee School of Art, Knoxville. His most recent work will be on view at Gallery Shoal Creek, August 18 through September.