Master printmaker and experimental artist Takeshi Takahara is a restless spirit. Rather than working comfortably within established print traditions, he prefers to skate near the edge of the unknown, constantly adapting and improvising new ways of making marks and creating images in his work. A visit to his studio, just outside of Ann Arbor, revealed his plans for his June WSG Gallery solo show.
The studio, a huge former square dance hall that serves as workplace, storage and display space for the artist, is dominated by a large printing press. The walls are festooned with proofs of images-in-progress and multiple plates in various stages of completion. In the corner of the studio is a table where Takahara mixes carefully formulated printing inks, using pigments and watercolors from Japan. Prints, framed and ready to install, rest along the walls of the studio, representing both a continuation and an expansion of themes and methods featured in his 2017 WSG Gallery solo show, Imperfection.
An experimental phase
Takahara, after his long career as a professor in the printmaking department of the UM Penny Stamp School of Art and Design, has entered a more experimental phase in his own work. The prints he will show in Poems to the Winds, his second solo exhibition at WSG Gallery, are evidence of his lifelong fascination with the natural world in dialog with the formal demands of his evolving art. Takahara continues to develop his unique, eco-friendly adaptation of intaglio printing, which involves replacing the metal plate and acid of the traditional intaglio process with a less toxic combination of materials. He applies spackle to a plywood substrate, then carves into it, resulting in a plate that produces a sharp, cut line similar to intaglio printing. Although it yields fewer impressions than a typical metal plate, the artist is content with the limitation, as he seldom prints more than 10 impressions of any given image, making small changes and adjustments of color and composition with each pass through the press.
Over time, the newly discovered materials and methods have suggested to him a more intuitive, less controlled style. In particular, he has been experimenting with working on the spackled plate while it is still wet, which allows him to use a broader array of carving tools, allowing the creation of a more complex range of effects, similar to aquatint and soft ground etching. The artist compares the process of preparing the plate to fresco painting; he applies the plaster in sections, carving into the wet plaster, then moving on to an adjacent area to continue the image. This improvisatory way of working adds an element of chance that Takahara finds appealing. Sometimes the slightly uncontrolled process produces what he calls “collateral marks”, fugitive and accidental visual incidents that add liveliness and charm to the composition. “I make a grid and then work section to section…then I divide and apply the spackle–it’s wet work,” he explains. “With this [technique] you can’t have exact imagery because it’s more atmospheric. [It] introduces an element of chaos, but then you have to put it in an organized form.”
A portrait of the unseeable
Atmosphere is precisely what Takahara is pursuing in Poems to the Wind. The artist, who obviously enjoys a challenge, has set out on a task which, at first, appears to be an impossible: to create a portrait of something unseeable. Though most of the prints bear a superficial resemblance to conventional landscapes, his aim is far more ambitious. He means to create an impression that suggests the flow of air over a vista, as if the wind were writing calligraphy. The hazy, fluttering images create the sensation of a fugitive breeze flowing over skin or ruffling one’s hair, the exquisitely nuanced colors and sharp, tiny lines on the silky gampi paper suggesting ghostly apparitions.
At first, it seems ironic that the ethereal premise of Takahara’s quixotic project requires such heavy-duty machinery and many hours of painstaking labor. But the large press, improvised tools and handmade pigments, all orchestrated by the artist, are, in a way, an apt metaphor for the creative quest: to transform mundane materials and methods into a reflection of something infinite.
Poems to the Winds will be on view from
June 11 – July 20 at WSG Gallery, 306 S. Main, Ann Arbor.
For more information, go to wsg-art.com/gallery/