The East Asian cosmological concept of yin-yang, or complementary opposites, receives vivid — and sometimes humorous — visual expression in a show by a pair of Japanese artists at the Flynndog gallery in Burlington.
Emiko Sawaragi Gilbert and Midori Harima both take fallen leaves as their subject. One set of works is autumnally colorful and composed in microscopic detail on snow-white vertical scrolls. The other consists of black, crumpled forms lying on the floor like remnants of a blown-out truck tire. Together, the very different treatments achieve a cohesion that causes viewers to consider nature’s mutability and subtle humor.
Working with East Hardwick printer Miwako Phelps, Gilbert has created high-resolution giclée prints of a dozen types of leaves, some with holes gnawed by worms, that she found near her home in Plainfield. Gilbert used a scanner to magnify dried specimens to about 20 times their actual size. She and Phelps then painstakingly transferred the images to long sheets of rice paper. It took two hours or more for the ink-jet process to achieve the desired quality for each of the prints, Gilbert said in an interview last week at Flynndog.
The exacting effort produces an almost three-dimensional effect. The oversize leaves — of oak, elm, aspen, milkweed, three poplars and five varieties of maple — pop out from the paper as though they were bas-reliefs. Peer closely, and you’ll be bedazzled.
Gilbert’s ultra-precise prints are accompanied by Harima’s funky, funny installations. These seemingly casual constructions scattered on the floor directly beneath Gilbert’s scrolls look initially like found shards of black vinyl. But it quickly becomes clear that they are also enlarged renderings of leaves — in this case, accompanied by crawling bugs. Harima’s pieces are made of black photocopy paper pasted and layered into thick forms, she explained during a recent stroll through the Japanese galleries in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
With antennae extended, some of the insects station themselves alongside leaves they’ve apparently been munching, while a couple of others stay partly hidden beneath a leaf’s folded edge. The longer a viewer looks, the more clever Harima’s sculptures appear.
This light-hearted, bugged-out composition marks a sharp departure from Harima’s earlier, eerie assemblages, also made of pasted layers of photocopy paper, which depict naked, life-size children and body parts. One of these pieces — a screaming girl, her head thrown back — is included in the Flynndog show. Along with a wall-hung arrangement of twisted twigs by Gilbert, this standing figure by Harima is partitioned off from the rest of the artists’ works, which are collectively titled “Roadside Picnic.”
Gilbert and Harima both express fascination with the Russian sci-fi novel of that name, which was the basis for Stalker, the 1979 Andrei Tarkovsky movie they also dig. The dystopian novel describes the aftermath of a visitation by unseen aliens who have left behind odd and wondrous objects.
There’s no clear connection between the cult fantasy and Gilbert’s rigorously rendered prints or Harima’s whimsical sculptures. The only direct allusions to Roadside Picnic — which weren’t apparent until explained by the artists — appear in a couple of enigmatic constructions by Harima. These conceivably functional forms definitely aren’t leaves; it’s hard to say what they might be.
The show’s yin-yang vibe extends to the artists themselves.
Gilbert, a white-haired 66-year-old, lives in a part of Plainfield that’s remote even by rural Vermont standards. She writes in an artist’s statement that she moved to the Green Mountains from Japan 30 years ago with her American husband to “fulfill my long-held desire to withdraw from people, reaffirm my true self and live in nature.”
Harima, 37 and dark-haired, settled in San Francisco for four years after immigrating to the U.S. in 2001. She has lived in a crowded section of Queens across the East River from Manhattan for the past eight years.
Gilbert, who met Harima in Japan, invited the younger artist to visit her in Vermont several years ago. The experience proved revelatory. Walking at night near Gilbert’s home, Harima says, she encountered “pure darkness” for the first time in a life spent in intensely illuminated urban areas. Harima speaks in almost mystical terms as she describes how this “absence of light” has influenced her art.
Gilbert, by contrast, says that what continues to impress her most about Vermont is “a quality of light so pure it seemed to come from the sun directly.”
Older and younger; lighter and darker; a rigorously formal and a playfully off-handed aesthetic: It’s a singularly engaging display of duality at the Flynndog.
“Roadside Picnic,” installation by Emiko Sawaragi Gilbert and Midori Harima, at Flynndog in Burlington. Through February 28. flynndog.net
The original print version of this article was headlined "Strange Visitation"