Masumi Sakagami: Ink Paintings Masumi Sakagami belongs to a long and venerable tradition of ink painters in Japan, where she studied some time ago in the city of Nara, described by her as “the heart and origin of Buddhism.” Her abstract paintings and classical calligraphy indicate a long-standing commitment to traditional expressiveness in freehand ink, or Sumi, drawings. Sakagami’s work is an excellent indication of the ongoing vigor of Sumi art, which sheds light on both the expressiveness of feeling and the decided calm of the Japanese people when the populace is considered in its entirety. Sakagami’s inventiveness allows her to create new expressions using traditional materials, in a way that advances the medium. Her self-imposed requirement is the production of imagery that feels contemporary while addressing the history of ink painting; she does this extremely well. The images, given names that do not necessarily explain the meaning of each work, look to a resonant abstraction rather than a realism easily understood by Sakagami’s audience. In this sense, the ink drawings are self-actualized into pictures that feel very much like they inhabit a world of their own liking, so that they resonate in non-figurative ways for the viewer. Subtlety, an indirect approach, and intuition are key ways of explaining Sakagami’s art.
One can easily see these attributes in the work itself. In Triple (2014), a moderately sized painting, a strong black line extends from the lower middle left of the painting, moving into a curved series of strokes that describe something like the shape of an apple. These curvilinear lines look like they derive from the horizontal single line that moves rightward across the page. One thinks, actually, of the image done in a single stroke, often a requirement in Zen painting. In Triple, we see Sakagami’s remarkable skill, whereby the image is expressed and found within an absolute minimum of embellishment. The painting remains a tour de force of the calm needed to accomplish it. A similar image, entitled High Wall (2014), makes it clear that Sakagami takes a strong interest in straight and bending lines. Here she again paints a middle line stretched across the paper, ending in a rough circular knot of strokes. Like Triple, the work High Wall could serve as a basic landscape with a horizon line and a sun. But the two pictures could be equally well understood as purely abstract paintings, whose stroke movement provokes emotions despite the viewer’s not knowing what the brushstrokes actually represent.
In Taki (2014), the oblong ovals of the ink seem to build a tower, one firmly centered with larger shapes at the bottom of the paper ground, and then tapering off with smaller forms as the viewer’s eye travels toward the top. One’s impulse is to define—to name concretely—what these strokes represent, but Sakagami relies on ambiguity as always: we cannot be entirely sure that what we see may be translated into a real object such as a tree or tower, images that come to mind in looking at Taki. Additionally, the symmetry in Crystallization (2014), based on two rising and curving lines that loop in similar ways, may be experienced as an abstract study first and foremost. This work may well be the abstraction of the lines we have mentioned; its expressiveness is based on tight curves nearly becoming loops and seems to be a self-sufficient picture that does not suggest an actual thing. And then there is the notable work called Family (2014), which consists of two similar shapes, of squat bases, each with a rising vertical stroke; is the symmetry that of abstract shapes, or does the title Family indicate two related, human figures? There is a true ambiguity here, one that enhances rather than detracts from the aura of the ink drawing. As always, Sakagami successfully emphasizes the feeling of what she does, no matter whether the work Is abstract or representational. Her vision encompasses a strong understanding of the contemporary importance of a venerable art, bringing sumi painting into the 21st century. In doing so, she transforms the genre into something inevitably fresh brining a new light to the long history of its practice.