It’s a welcome sight in these gray days. Pops of color, jolts of pattern, figural abstraction that exudes finesse and skill: these are the buoyant portraits in Ayumi Takahashi’s exhibition “I, You, Me” at Duplex. With the clarity of digital screens, these acrylic gouache on panel works tread the line between illustrative portraits and more abstract compositions that have been cropped and cut to emphasize intricate designs and flora. Accompanying the larger works are the Daily Paintings, a quickly dwindling selection of works on paper that give an insight into Takahashi’s exacting methods and sense of humor.
The Daily Paintings act as sketches and gestures both in the exhibition and in the artist’s practice. Rendered in carefully handled gouache, each tiny portrait is looser than the larger paintings they accompany, yet still hold distinct personalities. Each one reads as an individual character with a certain sense of self that makes one wish Takahashi would start making comics à la Love & Rockets. In an interview with the gallery, the artist talks about trying to start each day with a small composition that she builds on from a thumbnail sketch and five initial colors. These works are fully realized as themselves and are not sketches for larger works, but their focus on color, pattern and the artist’s graphic style carries over into her panel works.
Takahashi’s works on wood panel grow out of her practice as an illustrator for various publications, including The New York Times. Talking to Duplex, she noted about these commissions, “I have to be very representational most times, which I don’t really like.” She instead seems to be moving more toward an abstracted field that borrows the flat, graphic shapes of her illustrative style, and uses them to construct dizzying pattern swatches cooled by areas of solid color. In fact, the patterns themselves, and her inclusion of fashion as a subject matter, are mirrored in her printed fabric and textile work. Drawing from fashion magazines and an international background (Portland by way of China and Japan), this amalgam of sources come together to form a concise, concrete style.
In paintings like Anne, the artist recalls the solid shapes of Henri Matisse’s (and our own Michele Russo’s) nearly anonymous representations of the female form, but Takahashi’s are swathed in an almost digital crispness and dispense with any illusionism of space. Her backgrounds recall Japanese woodblock prints (which she admits to being influenced by) in the way that their gray flatness mingles with the figure’s plane and creates at once an all-over composition as well as a distinction between space and form which is similar to the mica backgrounds of the Edo Period actor prints. Other works, like Hayley, continue this tradition, but also give way to an individualism not dissimilar to that of painters like Alex Katz. With solid shadows and blocked out compositions, Takahashi’s abstract portraits strive to incorporate what she refers to as “a cleanness and a perfectness,” then adding, “But maybe I’ve been in Japan too long.” This isn’t to say that Takahashi’s works are derivative in the slightest. Her sharp, precise forms are tempered by a personal energy and an ever-growing push into abstraction that teeters on the edge of magical realism. Strange objects like wood and a cigarette float near the bottom of Mona. The absence of a face (which is usually so much a part of portraiture) gives some pieces an eerie, detached air that lends itself well to the artist’s collage-like tendencies.
All of this comparison to stylistic influences is fine, but there is still the matter of Takahashi’s own emergence from the design-forward world of illustration. Where past painters (and contemporaries too) would sketch in charcoal, graphite, watercolor, etc., Takahashi embraces technology and starts on the screen. By creating digital sketches before she works on the large panel works, the artist is able to revise and edit prior to painting. This process does a few things that are important to a reading of the artist’s work. First, each piece is precisely planned and patterns are meticulously designed for optimal balance with the solids of body and background. This emphasis on fabric is one that definitely ties into the artist’s interest in fashion and textile printing, but it also serves as a way to further abstract the composition by confusing the viewer with shapes filled with Rousseau-like foliage that is at odds with the otherwise straightforward portrait style. Secondly, developing her work through digital means helps to emphasize the flatness of each image; it is not a Modernist flatness, but instead one indebted to collage and papercuts. One expects the corner of the curtains in Lane to peel off from their backing, or Hayley’s dress to show threads where the bright swatch was cut from the yard.
Only in the Daily Paintings, and the occasional glare of light off of the painted surface of the larger works, is the artist’s brush present. And yet, all of the works are decidedly Takahashi. It is a rare talent to be able to translate a more populous illustrative style into something that hovers on the verge of total abstraction without losing something in either camp. As her compositions expand from more firmly-rooted portraiture into full blown pictorial abstraction, we can hope for an increase in the sometimes surreal subject matter while still holding to the immaculate execution.
“I, You, Me” runs through January 28th. Duplex is open M-F, 9-5 at 219 NW Couch.