WEDNESDAY, 1 FEBRUARY 2012 Miho Sato talks to Alli Sharma at her studio in Bow, London E3 articulatedartists.blogspot.com
AS: It’s interesting how little detail is needed to recognize your Moomin. I guess that is the theme of the exhibition, Minimal Excess. MS: Yes, I have made three Moomins, all different sizes. The first, in 2003, was bigger and on thick paper. For Minimal Excess I have a new painting, Russian Actress, and a slightly older one, Complexity of Adulthood 3, 2009. I had the image for Russian Actress for quite a long time. The actress and actor are together in a romantic scene from an old film. I have never watched the film but I saw part of it and I wanted to use it. I just found the image again a few days ago.
She has this covering, like a Muslim lady. The focus was on the actor, so maybe she was not so important, but I just picked that up. I often choose things with a covering. I like something hidden, or hooded. I tried many times to paint a nun. I have been interested in this image since I was a child, but it is most difficult, so I keep collecting the images. AS: Is Complexity of Adulthood 3 painted from a model you have made yourself? MS: No, it is from a children’s Ladybird book. The book was about how to make a rabbit. It had lovely illustrations. I have used one before for a girl skipping. It doesn’t look like the actual illustration, but the colour is something I pick up. At the moment I use more green and grey, which is a lot of colour for me. AS: It looks like you build up layers in the painting. I can see in there was something quite dark underneath? MS: I always use a dark background then paint over. AS: Is there something in particular that you look for in images? There is blankness in the paintings, and lack of detail. MS: Oh, they had more detail. The rabbit in the book had eyes and a pocket so I reduced it to get it how I wanted. AS: Are these ideas for paintings?
MS: I started this a while ago when I was a student at the RoyalAcademy. It is called Troll. It was a fire that I picked up from a Magritte painting. There was a flame and I cut it and used it and changed it to the troll. Last year I wanted to look at it again. I’m interested in the image so I keep trying it out, like with the Moomins. It is not so successful yet so I will try to do something another way. AS: The trolls, moomins and gonks link with a Western idea of Japanese artists looking at cute, cartoon types of imagery, like anime or kawaii. Do you see any connection? MS: I’m sure there is a connection but not on purpose. For my generation in the 1970s and 1980s everything was Americanised. I grew up in Japan with Tom and Jerry, Sesame Street and American animation programmes. When I was a child, the bank gave you a souvenir calendar every year and I found a
similar kitschy calendar in Slovakia recently. This kind of thing was given free in Japan and it gives me a nice feeling. I used to collect them. I grew up with these images, yes images with big eyes. But I don’t paint eyes. It’s not about that. It would become obvious, that is why I reduce. AS: I like these short-haired, flat brushes, are they traditional Japanese brushes? MS: Yes, they are for DIY, for sticking glue on Japanese paper doors. When I was a child almost all families had these, so they are very comfortable for me. I think it is natural brush. It works well with acrylic and water. AS: Do you have a regular working pattern? MS: I draw first. Sometimes I have images for a long time that I can use, like the Russian actress. But sometimes, like the Moomin, I know that I want to paint it so then I try to find the image. Normally I use images that already exist but last year I painted Paper Wristband, and it was an abstract image that I took on my phone. When I go to the gym, they give you a paper wristband. I saw Man Ray’s lampshade painting and I was interested in the shape. Also, in Slovakia, I showed one, called Ceiling, which came from a photo from my flat and Holes is from my studio wall, so that kind of thing.AS: Shape is important? MS: I don’t know what I’m interested in because each thing is different and something I want to do. I’m not interested in figure. It’s more abstract, searching for what I want in paint. I think everything is related in how I paint them. The lampshade was something I wanted, so is it shape? Somehow, it is those things altogether. When I paint, there is something I want to make fit, but it doesn’t quite match, and I’m not satisfied so then I have to do it again and again. Sometimes, when I concentrate, without thinking so much, it works. When I get more logical and think back, its not so satisfying. So it doesn’t come all the time. I struggle then I try again. Sometimes I spend a lot of time, then I do the same painting with another board and it works. AS: I wonder if it gets harder, to get into that spontaneous position, because you know so much about how you work.
MS: That is why, when I start working on a painting, the image is always more strange, because I don’t already know anything myself. I want to have that kind of fresh spirit. I work on one painting at a time, but sometimes I struggle so then I start another and come back later. This painting is called Aunt. It is from a magazine photograph of an Italian grandmother, but she looks like how I imagine my grandmother. AS: So there is a very personal connection, like the things you grew up with? MS: Yes, definitely there is something. It is always a personal thing but there are different elements as well, mixed together. My friend gave me this old fashioned Japanese cloth when I went to Japan. The pattern is probably 900 years old. It’s quite amazing, simple but good. It is probably the most Japanese thing I’ve done but it doesn’t look very Japanese does it?
Amnesia Ansel Krut talks about Miho Sato’s solo show at DOMOBAAL, London 2005 (published in turpsbanana issue 2, 2006)
In his essay on Miho Sato, Jonathan Miles says: ”Miho doesn’t speak very much. The country of her birth is far away and she rarely returns. Living here appears to be in accord with the way she chooses to be, for no one really bothers her. She no longer feels fully Japanese, but being English is even more remote. I think that she lives a zone that excludes the considerations that emerge from integrating or accepting boundaries. Not to be too bothered is the place she makes her own.” 1 Sato's paintings take up this position too. They are pared down to the point of self-effacement (all her people are faceless) but their indifference, their neutral attitude, is not directed towards themselves. In their construction and execution they are exquisitely poised towards the viewer, but they expect nothing of the viewer.
Sato’s exhibition is titled Amnesia. Although it is impossible to disentangle your own associations from her imagery, Sato's dislocation from the cultural specificity of her found imagery seems to operate in the same way as her painterly technique, ultimately undermining your anecdotal or personal reference points and leaving you stranded. In fact, the longer I spend with these paintings the more uneasy they start to make me feel. Having recently read the Moomintroll stories to my children I was reminded how easily a relationship of reflexive sympathy gets built up between the character and the reader/listener. It works like this: I love Moomin therefore Moomin must love me. But In Sato's painting, Moomin quite patently doesn’t care. Moomin is indifferent to his readers/lovers. This is a very dirty bomb that Sato has set off. Where does this anti-love stop? How does this affect my own childhood memories? As an image, Moomin suits Sato and she has painted him several times before. In Moomin she has found one of those lucky instances that figurative painters come across from time to time - when the image and its execution and its meaning fit together perfectly.
Moomin in Miho Sato’s painting is instantly recognisable to anyone who has read the Moomintroll books, and more particularly looked at the illustrations. I think Sato started this painting with a light blue background and then washed a white layer across it before painting the figure in umber. The dark bit at the top of the sky was washed on before the figure was drawn in, so the background was done first in its entirety and then the figure was drawn in with charcoal (you can see bits of charcoal at the edge of the figure), and lastly the figure was brushed across in brown. It looks like she might have masked the figure off with masking tape before she brushed in the dark, which would account for the angularity of the outline. She seems to have used a single brush size throughout, judging from the size of the brush marks. Maybe two brushes, but no more. Sato has painted Moomin much bigger than I imagined him to be. He looks like he is pressed up against the window from outside, looking in, with his nose flattened, and the light outside has made him a dark shape so that his features are hidden. He has no eyes or mouth, and the whole painting depends on his squashed nose, or muzzle, because if you take that away, Moomin ceases to be Moomin and becomes something else, a cipher, a flat shape with two spikes at the top that could be a cut-out horse, or like Batman seen from the back in silhouette, or the facade of a building with two towers. It is just the wobbly oval muzzle that makes the figure so obviously and so immediately Moomin. If you look at how the outline of the body is drawn you see that it is in fact a series of short straightish lines linked at angles. The top of Moomin’s head is quite flat and only the muzzle is drawn with a fluid curved line. The body, the muzzle, and the background are brushed across in pretty much the same, apparently, casual way. There is a small darker tone at the top of the picture which suggests space or night, but that’s about it in terms of painterly elements. Sato has painted Moomin slightly from the side with a single arm ending in a point, just above the bottom edge of the canvas. There is a little blob of paint below the end of the arm where the artist’s brush has leaned over
accidentally, but most of this mark is actually on the underside of the bottom bar of the canvas which makes it not really part of the picture, except it is somehow an important clue at the same time. On the whole, each phase of the painting looks to have been done in a single go or act. The paint itself is very thin and doesn’t appear to have been absorbed by the ground, and yet it doesn’t quite sit on the surface. If anything, there is an indifferent attitude to the canvas, a sort of shrugging-off. The painting takes up a neutral position. I recognise where some of the other images in the exhibition come from, and some are pointed out to me. I’m not sure I want or need to know the sources, but the Moomin painting is perhaps an exception because it is so specific, and because I know the stories, but not everyone has read Moomintroll. I don’t know how Sato selects her sources. Her gallery tells me they emerge for her and are often picked out from the sea of images that surrounds us every day. Sato had, for instance, wanted to paint a nun for some time and then a photo cropped up in the Evening Standard that she felt she could use. She made several versions - her working method does not really allow for too many changes on the canvas - and she ended up with Sister. Knowing nothing specific about the nun does not stop this being a compelling and frightening image for me, with a blank faced sister of mercy looming towards me like a mad singing nun from a zombie version of The Sound of Music. In Encounter, Sato’s figure has her hair swept back by a violent indoor wind. There is a feeling in this image of sensory deprivation, as though the ghostly wind has blanketed the figure’s senses. The light casts no light, her features are erased, her ears residual. By way of contrast the most charming painting in the exhibition is taken from a Reynolds painting of a girl with a dog. The girl is faceless in this tiny picture, but the dog’s face is articulated just with a blobby dark mark for a nose. This doggy nose rests on the top of the girl’s forearm like a little ball ready to roll away, and the lighter tone of the dog’s head is like an inverted keyhole to the little girl’s heart. It is a droll picture and playful in a painterly way. The dog’s bent leg is quite undog like and the punning suggests the girl’s bent knee, although her legs are hidden under her dress. And the dress has been painted very loosely, up to the dog’s leg and against a dark background that acts as a ring between two elements. Each section is seen separately, but also makes up a rhythmical and delightful composition that constantly collapses and reforms itself as an image. The whole thing is beautifully painted in a modulated range of sympathetic low-key colours. This painting is a world away from the bleak horror of some of the other paintings, but makes you aware of how adroitly Sato finds her language in each individual picture. It also makes you aware of the very precise decisions that inform her more unsettling works.
Some of the paintings in the exhibition are on canvas and others are on wood or card. The wood and card look pretty battered as though they have had previous lives before ending up as surfaces to be painted on, but conversely the painted surface in these images is slightly richer, though not generally so rich as to dispel that neutrality, that lack of affect, which is the defining quality of Sato’s work. Ansel Krut, London 2005 (published in turpsbanana issue 2, 2006)
Rebecca Geldard, London, December 2006 (writtten for Miho Sato’s second solo exhibition at domobaal)
Miho Sato is something of a militant magpie for the information age. Borrowing at will from a variety of printed source matter, Sato liberates the images she chooses of the artificial facets that bind them to time, place and sentiment and gives them back to us devoid of detail. But there is a catch. In choosing to re-present familiar subjects, Sato forces us to confront just how complicit we are within the endless cycle of data reproduction. Rifling through other people's histories, she is free to shine a light under the murkier aspects of contemporary image making. Through the process of adding conceptual flesh to the bones of these paintings we become responsible for the sum of our marketable parts, yet essentially remain the victims of an astute pictorial set-up. Absorbing the visual materials that please her, Sato appears to filter all extraneous data through a ruthless pictographic net until she is left with a partial, but strangely faithful version of the original. The contemporary icons, bit-part characters and creatures harvested for painterly post-mortem, have been stripped of the obvious qualities upon which we rely to inform us of who or what they are. The non-specific habitats within which we find these lost souls could just as easily represent limbo as a moment of conceptual clarity. These works are not fussy or precious in a realist sense, yet the painterly delicacy with which she describes her subjects is acute, though easily masked by the simplicity of the composition. The title of Sato’s last solo show at Domo Baal, ‘Amnesia’ in 2005, implied that the details left out of the portrait-like paintings had been forgotten. Almost as if the blank expressionless faces of celebrities and social stereotypes had been snatched from the subconscious of a coma patient. The new works have been suitably reduced: boiled down to a thin, grey acrylic soup and served up in small but deadly portions. Where earlier subjects appeared to pose grimly for Sato’s studies, the new breed might have been caught unwittingly: whether National Geographic silhouettes hewn from barren landscapes, or characters caught in a celluloid moment purposefully ignoring any voyeuristic intrusion. They refuse to engage with us, passively aggressive in their silent request that we work out the dynamics for ourselves. In ‘Cowboy film’ a distant horse and rider surveying a mountain range, painted as if viewed through a lens, appear as though they might leap from peak to peak now released from the hobbles of pathos and schmaltz – two defining characteristics of Western films and American pioneer painting. Sato does not flatter her subjects. On their reductive journey from printed image to painted entity, her characters, like those in Haruki Murakami’s Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, are forced to check in their shadows at the edge of the frame. But then, perhaps it is the shadows of these beings, who have been blocked out with a complex but limited range of colours on primed black boards, that we are really engaging with. The fill-in effect of the luminescent grounds from which the figures emerge simultaneously hoodwinks the viewer into thinking these paintings more crudely manufactured than they are, while affording a compositional breathing space within which to more closely examine Sato’s tonal proficiency. The ground as void or contemplative space is a crucial feature in her paintings: the cinematic tension that binds the two figures, sat side-by-side and staring out into a nebulous spatial plane, in ‘Shore’ might just as easily signify the end of an affair as the advent of Armageddon. The stark honesty of earlier paintings seems to have softened slightly as if polluted by a vaporous belch of hope.
There is little room for vanity, for these facsimiles in acrylic elegantly straddle the intersection between the physicality of the character depicted and their associative other – their brand potential. While the images behind the paintings (Sato often sources visual material from the mainstream press), may promote a false, engineered beauty, she refuses to comply with the unattainable standards set by digital image-makers. Sato’s production methods mirror the Photoshop phenomenon in reverse: camera-ready faces appear to have been wiped clean in a few brushstrokes. If during the painting process a head of hair should become a black helmet, a killer whale a fighter plane, then so be it, how we process and typify these associations is our lookout. Yet Sato is not ambivalent towards her subject matter; she is dogged in her pursuit of the image required, often producing several versions of the same painting. These featureless characters are anything but forgettable; they hold our attention despite the fact that we have become sensorially anaesthetised to the hightech trickery proffered by film and photographic media. Though potentially iconic in a contemporary sense, they are not the highbrow subjects often favoured by the English School of painters Sato makes reference to. ‘Maria’ (the earliest and largest work in this new series), arms held aloft, is not so much proclaiming that the hills are alive, as resignedly accepting her replicatory fate. A lone stag, pictured in the muted lilac landscape, more single-malt hinterland than natural world, trades on the benign cuddliness of the earlier ‘Moomin’ series, while operating as a symbol of Western consumption. Oddly though, these works appear quite at home when reproduced in digital format: through the process of downloading the images you experience that fantastical element so hard to define in these spare paintings as they materialise on screen. Many of the adjectives that accurately describe Sato’s works (monochrome, melancholic, reductive) do little to explain this preternatural quality. It’s as easy to fictionalise Sato, as a foreigner living in Britain (she came to London from Japan to study at the Royal Academy Schools in 2000), as it is the characters she chooses to paint. As Ansel Krut points out in a recent issue of the quarterly painting magazine turpsbanana: “it is impossible to disentangle your own associations from her imagery”. Sato’s otherness is a palpable collaborative force fostered by the artist and projected by the viewer: it is the last component to be stripped from the residue of her painterly characters and the first ingredient absorbed through the viewing process. Upon meeting Sato it is possible to believe that the published protagonists, filmic antiheroes and art historical symbols that dominate these paintings arrive in her life through an alchemical, perhaps fatalistic process. But the fact that they press so many of our sensory buttons is no accident.
An essay by Jonathan Miles written for Miho Sato's first solo exhibition, June 2005.
“Yet we are talking about major ruptures that affect everyone, every generation, every generation, and all their images, languages, ways of life. From one moment to the next, this opens in us, allowing us to see this vast drift (derive) of the world. From one moment to the next, we find ourselves sensibly and physically outside ourselves, outside the blind slipping away of our little stretch of time. We see the night that borders our time, and we touch on some aspect of it – not the future, but the coming of something or someone: the coming of something that is already of us and of the world, but that has to come from somewhere else, displaced elsewhere into an unimaginable elsewhere. Perhaps it is an ability to touch, in the darkness, this coming elsewhere, this breaching of time, of space, of all orientation, that will have defined a character trait specific to modernity. Modernity knows itself to be exposed (this is both a threat and a desire) to what is not itself and is not there, but is nonetheless very close or continually approaching.” Jean-Luc Nancy essay “Changing of the World” in “A Finite Thinking” (1) Miho doesn’t speak very much. The country of her birth is far away and she rarely returns. Living here appears to be in accord with the way she chooses to be, for no one really bothers her. She no longer feels fully Japanese, but being English is even more remote. I think that she lives a zone that excludes the considerations that emerge from integrating or accepting boundaries. Not to be too bothered is the place she makes her own. I wonder if she feels that she might have escaped from Japan. Someone told me once that they felt leaving Japan was an escape. “Concrete has entered the lives of people.” “When I first arrived here I thought that I had made a mistake because I couldn’t understand anyone. For the first six months I just stayed locked in my room, but I am glad that I eventually came out and started to circulate. Japan has another sense of reality. I think I just get on with ordinary life in the sense of paying rent and just living without any need to fight others. Maybe, in this way, I can live anywhere. When I was at art school I felt that there was something that was a little fake about it, or in a way political. Sometimes people would put an idea before your work and this got in the way of my desire to change, or at least keep the gap between what I was doing and what I liked. Working in isolation means that many gaps are kept open, so you have to live with the reality of these spaces.” I first saw Miho’s work in the Royal Academy schools. I stood within her studio space. I think I said the word, “interesting” and Miho simply smiled without paying too much attention. We might have had a conversation through looks instead of words. Since then there have been few words between us, but we look at each other carefully. This is the opposite of shyness or withdrawal. Our lives touch because we have eliminated all the usual things that enable the understanding of connection. This might indicate that we only connect through painting, but this is far from the truth. “As an artist I do not think in terms of being a critic of images, as if there might be such a place. There is an essential ambiguity, which lies in the fact that you are never fully inside or outside of the image so the act of painting is partly in extending that ambiguity within the painterly surface. Painting is a slow process and I think it is slow because it never answers a purpose but rather goes around itself constantly as if lost. Sometimes it feels like I am stretching something in time at other times it is like suspension. I think we need to keep alive the edges of images, or points of departures. I often work from images I found a long time ago, even childhood memories so there is I think a process of unlocking or at least dealing with something that might seem strange. Images both move toward me but they are also departing from me so I never know at which point
they might come to rest. Anyway I find a point of concentration through which the restlessness of the image might grind to a halt and then lodge within a space of painting. I think I stop painting when everything is still.” All of this is not really a detour from talking about Miho’s paintings. People often have a sense that someone’s life is in their paintings, as if painting might be a special kind of symptom. There is a semblance of a subject within Miho’s work, but it is a trace of a subject that has already departed. Also there is a sense that there is a pursuit of something in these paintings, but rather than moving toward that something, they are instead moving away from a sensation of this something. “I was thinking about repetition and how repetition is interesting to painters. I remember at the Royal Academy doing a painting of a nun and it just didn’t seem to work. I think this difficulty related to the relationship of the body and the costume. I tried several other paintings of nuns but they each failed for different reasons. Somehow the painting that I am exhibiting now works because of the way I have cropped the image, which I found in the Evening Standard. So I have returned again and again to nuns but this is the first one that I have left in the open” It is an easy thing to slip into the belief that painters paint because they have something to say. I would say that painters have little to say, but they have something to do, which is the simple act of painting. The expression “stupid like a painter” is an outcome of not having anything to say. One of the proper conditions of painting is in touching that which is either numb or dumb. This is why painters repeat themselves constantly, because each painting is its own event, rather than a version of an original experience in search of expression. Of course painting might propel speaking and writing, but never without a sense of inadequacy arising within such impulses. Part of the sensation of immobility that might appear at the heart of these paintings, seems to induce an equal form of immobility within the process of naming. If I say, “I am not sure about these paintings,” then already I have started to find a slope that leads me away from myself and toward an exemplary gap that distinguishes art. Connection with painting might equally start with lack as well as wonder. “I don’t really look at those large scale figures in the history of art like Titian or Rembrandt but rather painters like Reynolds and Gainsborough. For me there is a feeling of the familiar within many of these paintings. For instance a friend gave me one of these one pound framed image of a Reynolds painting. It felt as though it still had a feeling of circulation in it, perhaps even an element of kitsch or nostalgia but there is a ledge there for me, something that I can find an opening in. I think I need to connect painting to a personal vision within myself rather than making abstract judgements.” Jean-Luc Nancy asks a question, “What remains of art?” and then queries, “Perhaps only a vestige.” (2) If I might relate this discussion of vestige to Miho’s work, I would say that her paintings represent a coming-and-going of a self already deferred within occultation, and so without proper figure with a ground (“syncopated blackout of being”). Each and every image is a passing by, in the form of a self that is in search of a face. This could also represent a desire for spacing or a setting. So images are arrested and drawn into another time, in an arc of slow descent to be gradually stripped of the persuasions of this world, until they reach a point of loss that opens them to the false intimacy of another semblance, or another self. Each painting is a self-portrait or an indefinite slowing of a look that vanishes into its remainder. We are confronted by two extremes, the image within the world of the spectacle, an evanescent world without seeming limit or end and thus without proper origin, and the image as a withdrawal into half- life, disappearing into a sphere of gradual fading. Perhaps we are assured that each day we can find reassurance that the world still has a face and
that we can in turn sink into and find our loss in the exacting faces of those who pose in order to give face. Miho, I think, is interrogating this, because in starting from her own withdrawal, she wants to suspend that which shines in its own movement. Metaphorically Miho arrests these images, and in drawing them into a night- time space, she enacts a form of death sentence, so that they might have a second life as vestiges. All of this is not a simple play of absence and presence but rather the very erasure of such difference. It is this process of erasure that seals Miho’s paintings as works that neither have voice or place. They might be the most perfect lures for our over excited eyes, slow paintings that strike a chord oscillating between pathos and dull humour or a fading of an hyper stimulated visual realm of persuasion and simulation, but as we might pass through such consolations we are drawn into something far more difficult to comprehend, and that is to be found in the extreme fatigue of having to return to the same futile task of facing misrecognition as a condition of representation. If each painting is a form of self-portrait, it is because self-portraiture is the most extreme act of faith. Rather than search in a mirror for a symmetrical confirmation of being, Miho wanders across the unlimited zone of images in order to find her departure, detour and then descent. This process is in turn haunted by the sense of not knowing what it is that is being pursued, other than something becoming strange. A simple question is posed. What is it like to be perpetually foreign? “I didn’t use to have a feeling about being in a studio space. For me the impulse for making work could happen anywhere but now I feel this space lends a special sense to my work. There is a special kind of loneliness in the studio, which can be either a happy loneliness or a sad loneliness, but you start to exist of either edge without a concern about which of these states. Sometimes you might be stuck and so you go out of this space in order to find another kind of light. I remember going to a MacDonald’s and ordering a child’s meal, which had a smiling toy with it and looking at this toy suddenly gave me a new starting point. It was just an everyday encounter but it served to unlock something in me. I think I need the outside world for these moments but I have to have the long stretches of time in order to unpick these moments.” Of course these paintings have a look. This is the condition of modern painting. In particular they have a similar appearance to Luc Tuymans, but not the strategic certainty that make such painting possible. The seeming remoteness of Tuymans is linked to the public understanding of encounter. In some ways it is possible to claim that they speak too loudly of the conditions that provide a ground for them. They enact the rhetoric of the death of painting or order to appropriate a space for the rhetoric to be reiterated in a new form. Likewise they play with the death of history in order to discover a space in which the loss of the genre of history painting might be a site of another enactment. Tuymans has coupled the work of painting with the play of negativity that in turn couples the fading of the subject with the loss of definite presence. So despite the obvious visual influence, there is no polemical connection. In other respects I think Miho is much closer to the American painter Robert Moscowitz, who with Neil Jenney and Philip Guston initiated a new relationship to the image in painting in the late 1970’s, which at the time was called “bad painting.” Moscowitz’s produced massive paintings in which largely monochrome grounds contained or held various types of figures, sometimes in silhouette form, or other times masked out to heighten the relationship to ground. In one painting a distinct figure of a swimmer looks as though the act of swimming might also be the act of drowning. What you are left to focus on is the physical gesture, because all signs of visible facial expression are absent. The figure is thus a cipher for an uncertain condition, a loss into pleasure or the panic (in the face of death). Moscowitz slows everything down, eliminating all detail until the persuasion of reality departs. A question is placed before the image and in the space after it. You recognise, then doubt the recognition, you double into misrecognition, fall into loss, pleasure found in one moment, then disturbance within the next. Despite the scale of
his work they appear to me to lack the strategic awareness of Tuymans and in this vein they are hermetic or even an esoteric form of painting. Likewise I think that Miho is a hermetic painter, a form of identity we often ascribe as being a painter’s painter. In many ways she works on a similar edge as Moscowitz and Jenny because elegance and ineptness appear to coexist with a controlling sense of logic or idea. Somehow the work emerges from being both under and over described at the same time. By its very nature it cannot aspire toward a condition of consistency. “Painting animals is different from painting people. I think that human beings are heavy beings. They also appear to carry things and have a lot of detail. Animals also appear to me as being more friendly but in turn flowers or butterflies are lighter than animals. I like light things, its funny but I always think that Reynolds paintings are light, which is why a lot of people might dislike them. I think I might eliminate things or features in order to make faces or figures lighter so that they might be able to manage better in the zone that I take them to.” The aim of these paintings is to keep alive the difference between immersion and distance. In this there is both a chill of indifference and the awakening of a space of reverie, which in turn might heighten a sense that image culture itself is a repository of undisclosed movement. Rather than seeing images as either simple presence or sensation, Miho poses the notion that there is something that is before and after the image. In this respect her work is an act of re-inscribing a different understanding of duration within the image. If the images Miho draws upon are linked to memory, then these images are realigned with the unconscious, a space Freud felt was outside of time. Memory is of course a strange and shifting non-place, which is continuously at work, realigning, focussing, blurring, editing, framing, condensing, connecting, closing and opening. We might treat memory as our primary form of evidence or narrative of being and yet it also serves as our space of fiction in equal measure. Its very persistence is the persistence of our becoming and thus the site of our claim for having a world. We might view Miho sending her images back in time, in order that they might find a temporary resting place that could be described as personal experience. In this process the image is thus touched by something that is both removed and alien to it. If the stereotypical image appears on the horizon of the forever new, then the archetypal image might be seen in contradistinction, as forever remote, but I do not really think that we are dealing here with the confrontation of this order of difference. Rather it is an attempt to find ways of resolving a space between the attraction and the fading of the image, rather like a space of mourning in which loss and remembrance are pushed into constant proximity. “In the painting “Encounter” I found an image from the film Poltergeist in which a woman had just seen a ghost. I wanted to isolate this figure in order to make its condition more inward. I think that this represents a special moment, even a spiritual moment when there is a kind of turning in life. Simply her hair stands up as if there is a fan blowing a current of air. I think that I was working off a sense that the moment that you have a problem or difficulty in something then something else will happen that creates an opening for this to be altered in another direction. This might appear slight or without consequence but on a deeper level it might be read as a special or spiritual moment. A lot of my work is connected to the apprehension of moments even though in another way I am also interested in delays.” In Descartes thinking, natural light illuminates the path of knowledge providing the basis of the subject’s interrogation of itself. There is a triangulation between the subject, light, and knowledge, which in turn serves as the metaphorical basis of Western rationalism. The sense of light in Miho’s work appears quite contrary to this for not only is the light as a general principle subdued but it is closer to a form of “black light” evocated by Derrida. It is a form of light
in which polarity is somehow annulled and thus the dialectically oppositions of light and shadow are partially eliminated so that a far more neutral sense of vision might come to the fore. Although these paintings might be based upon flashes or insights, they also appear as stubborn form of withdrawal from the ocular. Likewise the route into any claims of knowledge is obscured so instead indicate a withdrawal from the clarity in which such inscribed claims might cohere. “Sometimes my life sinks into the world of images as if they are like the sky that you just accept as being there as a fact of nature. At other times I do not know what it is I see and then there is a sense of everything appearing as completely unnatural. Also sometimes my work appears light and humorous and sometimes as dark and heavy. I do not feel it is possible to control how we might be seen or indeed see. Painting is just a process of bringing such differences into the open.” One of the most fundamental questions that face painters at this moment relates to the question of painting needing a negative horizon in the form of the death of painting and secondly the idea that all painting is now a form of minor painting because such a negative horizon might appear to force painting away from itself into a space of endless deferral. In Miho’s case little appears to happen from painting to painting. In turn the actual ground that they survive within, seem as a consequence to lack expansive possibility. If the spectrum of images, that appear as available in the realm of visible appearance, seem to give raise to unlimited forms of appropriation then one might question why such an art might in turn appear to reside within such constrained limits. In the words of Jean-Luc Marion the “world is made into an image…Today, the image covers the surface of the earth – in addition to the surface of the eyeballs (des globes oculaires) of the inhabitants of the world – only insofar as it produces itself, multiplies itself, and expands without restriction or reference… the image, in contrast to paper currency, accrues (accroit) its authority by disconnecting itself from every original: the less gold there is, the more value the image has; so the dollar is not an image; but fortunately, the images produce dollars. In short, the liberation of the image consists precisely in its being liberated from every original; the image is valued in itself and for itself, because it is valued by itself. The image has no original other than itself and undertakes to make itself acceptable only to the unique original.” (3) So if the image is its own reality then in turn all viewers are defined by the way it sets up both framing and screening. All the image can do within this context is confirm the nihilism upon which it is predicated in the first place. Everyone is placed by his or her own self-image. Miho is probing the circularity between the image and desire trying to find tiny fissures that might be opened in order to question the power of this world with origin or ending. Whereas this technological realm of images displays authority, completion and persuasion, Miho creates awkward and even redundant looking paintings, which look as though they are in a state of exile. They cannot of course claim political expediency because they are unsettlingly remote in any public sense but this might be the basis of claiming a form of “resistance to the present.” Painting is necessarily minor within the present because it is so much adrift from the technologies of persuasion. Painting, as a material practice, has to invest in the sense of a world apart or a recessive sense of space in which it might develop gestures away from the tendency of closure found in image culture. Contrary to the idea of the last gesture that is inscribed with futility painting might examine its long syntaxical history in order to find a turn away from the relationship with nihilism, which renders everything as interchangeable and thus exhaustible. I cannot be any more exact than this, so I am left to reiterate the sense that the image field is pressed so finely into its surfaces, that are without textual or temporal edge, to feel any sense of relation. Painting we might think, that is a form of painting that has not succumbed into being a simple product, holds the memory trace of another mode of relation beyond that which is pre-governed. If the source or sense of signification and meaning within Western culture has departed (Man, History, God, the Subject) we might then have a sense
Ros Carter New British Painting, John Hansard Gallery, Southampton, January 2003 published in the catalogue of British Painting at John Hansard Gallery in 2004.
Miho Sato Initially trained as a graphic designer in Nagoya, Japan, Miho Sato has established herself in London as a painter. Along with other artists such as Jun Hasegawa, her work provides an insight into the curious crossover between Japanese and Weatern cutlures. The fact that she has trained and lived in London for some time has brought a wide range of influences to bear upon her work. It has taken a noticeably different direction from the work of some of her Japanese popular culture. London has brought a high degree of cosmopolitanism to her work and has strongly influenced her choice of imagery. Sato maintains an ongoing collection of images that are originally sourced from magazines, postcards, or reproductions of other artworks. This apparent hoarding provides a constant reservoir of source material that can be drawn upon at a later date. Probably at a point when something within a given image will perhaps relate back to the recolection of a childhood memory, or will provide the basis upon which she can create a new image that will then go on to exist in its own right. In a quite dense and getural manner, the selected image is then re-worked quickly in acrylic. Emphasis is placed upon a specific element, with the background detail being more or less removed, or at least strongly marginalised, giving the sense of an isolated and at times free-floating entity. The works concentrate primarily on representations of people, such as Justin Timberlake or David Bowie, or sometimes fictional charcters such as Moomins, or The Lone Ranger (only occasionally veering from this in the form of animals or flowers). Alongside such figures of popular contemporary culture, she also establishes relationships with the history of Weatern Painting by referncing historical portraiture. In fact, Miho Sato has said that during her time at the Royal Academy she would often look at 19th century English painting such as Gainsborough. This is something that she shares with some other contemporary artists from Japan - Miran Fukada, for example who quotes and represents art historical works in her paintings. The fact that Sato makes no deliberate differentiation between referencing images from both high and low culture makes her choices all the more curious. It directs the work away from making any overtly political statement about the condition of culture, but instead establishes it as more of a personal and emotional response to imagery and image-making. There is clarity of image and simplicity of form in the paintings, which give them a quiet stillness and haunting resonance. The subdued palette is reminiscent of other European painters such as Luc Tuymans and Michael Raedecker, however there are still strong suggestions of Japanese culture (specifically interiors and early watercolours from the 18th and 19th century). Sato concentrates on a central singular firgure or pairs of figures that inhabit an undefined space. These figures do not seem to belong within a particular context, but to exist as isolated beings within their own individual reality. The story of their existence and meaning becomes concentrated into one single captured moment. Some characters are caught mid-movement, appearing frozen, held by unseen confines within their own nether world. What makes these images and characters so interesting is the place they occupy. Far removed from their source, they inhabit somewhere that exists neither within reality nor fantasy - they occupy a parallel world of memory and distant recollections, recounting dreamlike visions where identity is unclear. They are ghostly imprints of a retrieved image, a kind of haunting perceptual afterimage. They mimic the mind’s own hazy and incomplete method of recalling an image, by condensing it to its core elements of form, and by omitting the one element that gives it the reassurance of recognition - the face. The omission of the face has a powerful effect on the viewer, who is denied the usual initial point of contact when looking at representations of a figure. A
sense of unease and discomfort may arise as the viewer is left with the task of relying upon a past memory store of retained images to complete the likeness. The absence of a face is often seen as the stuff of nightmares,a denial of that which is deemed most human, it abates the ability to read another person, thereby hindering the establishment of some kinf of dialogue between the viewer and the viewed. The depiction of a figure without a face can be seen in some way as a denial of the ‘soul’, a stripping away of the very means by which a figure can declare it true nature and identity. For these reasons, it is possible that Miho Sato’s depictions and reworkings of these photographs and paintings could be seen as cold and disconnected. However, this is not the case. The images are often reassuringly familiar and endearing, with the ability to tap into much shared memory. Apparently simplistic rendering provides a basic and immediate reference point, by which the viewer can gain access and consider the position and function of these images within cultural histories. An interesting and curious contradiction is brought about, between the sometimes light-hearted and fleeting nature of the source-image from which the painting originates, and the dark and brooding presence it has become. There is much smile-inducing humour inherent within these incongruous associations between the source material and the final realisation of the works, through which they harness and capture considerable soul and humanity.
review of Miho Sato @ domobaal in The Independent, 04.07.05
Miho Sato @ Domo Baal Miho Sato was born in Japan in 1967 and studied at the Royal Academy Schools. Using images from magazines, postcards and reproductions of other artworks as catalysts, her paintings have a simplicity of form and resonate with dense stillness. The mood that predominates is one of absence. Her images are emptied out, as if the subject had simply departed, leaving a trace of its former presence. The head of a nun is defined by the shape of her wimple but the face is blank. A woman pokes her head stiffly above the surface of the sea; her face is bereft of all detail. Evocative and ghostly, she is almost certainly “not waving but drowning” Others of Sato’s figures relate back to childhood recollections from popular culture, story books and history of art. A polar bear - static, white and eyeless - or the TV character Moomin evoke those spectral presences that infiltrate childhood consciousness and hover like phantoms on the edge of nightmares. These images force us to come up against the distorting and partial nature of memory. The past it is said is another country and memory its language. But its terrain is never a physical place but rather a space of shifting narratives, blurred fictions and half-remembered fears. Miho Sato’s paintings have a particular look. They seem naïve gauche even, as if executed without much concern. But this is the condition of a certain sort of modern painting. It is an attitude that both speaks of the impossibility of painting and of its death while still attempting to ring out the few last resonant phrases. There is a bleakness here, a pervading sense of demise as if all emotion had been banished and the world rendered down to its component signs. This is a very Japanese sensibility but it also seems to be a detached comment on western culture from which so much meaning has now been evacuated - God, Belief, History - that all we are left with is a blank stare. Sue Hubbard