March 2, 2009 Etsuko Ichikawa at BAM on Art Culture
By Rachel Chambers | Art Culture
Seattle-based artist Etsuko Ichikawa seems to be showing everywhere at once these days. Last year ended for her with two shows at the Art Basel Miami Beach fair and the opening of her solo exhibit Traces of the Molten State at the Bellevue Arts Museum. This winter has also included exhibitions in Washington D.C., Chicago, and another Seattle showing at Davidson Galleries. Ichikawa will start out the spring with an exhibition in Los Angeles and a feature on the cover of GLASS magazine. Since I first wrote about Ichikawa’s work in May 2009 she has certainly been busy and judging by the amount of work that she is showing it is safe to assume that her 2009 will only get busier.
I had the opportunity to meet Ichikawa shortly after I first stumbled upon her work at Davidson galleries last summer and she invited me to come watch her work in her studio. I quickly saw that the images she created involved a lot more thought and artistic planning than I had originally imagined. I pictured it to be something like sketching on big sheets of paper with hot glass, but it turns out that it’s not quite that easy. Ichikawa was friendly and talkative in between set ups, but as soon as she got to work she was mostly silent with obvious concentration. The process looks something like this: Ichikawa pulls out the molten glass and rolls and shapes it until the desired shape is created. Then she carries it over to a heavy sheet of paper and either drops, drags, or twirls the glass over the surface to get the image that she wants. Flames flare up from the paper as she studies to see if more needs to be done. When she ascertains that it is complete her assistant runs over with a spray bottle in order to put out the still crackling image before it burns through the canvas. The now hardened pieces of glass are then swept away and broken to fit into a dump bucket. The process is absolutely mesmerizing to watch and it was easy to see why Ichikawa often does live demonstrations or videos of her process in conjunction with her exhibits.
Ichikawa’s art is unique because it is really hard to define in a way that gets the point across. It is still described as glass art even though no glass remains in the final product. The artist originally worked as a more conventional glass artist before she began making her “glass pyrographs” by accident when she dropped molten glass while assisting another artist at the Pilchuck Glass School. The mark that was left behind inspired her to create something new. It seems that her art is the aftereffect of an experience, the shadow burned onto the wall in an instant. In the same way that a photograph tries to capture something fleeting, Ichikawa makes something from the impermanent: the molten state. It is this aspect of the art that continually draws Ichikawa to this investigation of “what lies between the ephemeral and the eternal.” She has managed to do the impossible, to paint images with smoke and fire to catch the proverbial “wave upon the sand.” Perhaps a surprising aspect is that the images that result from such an intense and destructive process are calm and reflective. They don’t necessarily bring to mind burning or heat but instead they take on the pace of slow-moving underwater creatures or the cigarette smoke curling near the ceiling of a dimly lit bar. Ichikawa says that she makes her pyrographs based on instinct and it is this inherent randomness of something that can so clearly look like so many different things to so many different people that really makes the viewer think.
The first thing I noticed entering the Bellevue Art Museum was Ichikawa’s installation “Traces of the Molten State” in the front atrium. The triptych of pyrographs towers over the front room and the conflicting movements of the images keep the eye moving. The center panel seems to be rising up towards the ceiling while the two side panels appear to be slowly dropping towards the ground. Upstairs in the Pilchuck Glass Gallery a different atmosphere is created for “Walk With Mist” a curved series of pyrographs surrounding an installation of small glass balls hovering over the floor. The dim light and eerie images feels a little like a cave full of beautiful traces of unknown specimens frozen in time. This feeling is intentional because Ichikawa explains that this piece had two inspirations. “One is of a mist I encountered climbing up a deep forest in a sacred region in Japan. The other is of a shaft of sunlight piercing a dark cave in Mexico.” To truly get this feeling, the projection that lights up the glass spheres must be on. On my first trip to see the exhibit at the BAM, someone had neglected to turn on the video projection and the feeling was quite different, less complete. The full atmosphere is best appreciated with quiet voices and a few moments taken to study each image for its apparent cohesiveness with the whole despite the randomness of its creation.
This exhibit is especially unique because it is presented in the alongside the gallery’s display of artifacts and exhibits from the humble beginnings of the Pilchuck Glass School. The room is a museum of posters and early artifacts from the now famous school that Dale Chihuly founded in the early seventies along with Anne and John Hauberg. The room details the inception of the school as basically an art summer camp for hippies to its acceptance as a center for experimentation and boundary breaking in the world of glass. Included are some early pieces from Chihuly before he found his knack for large-scale installations. Also, the pieces from international glass artists who visited the school as it got more recognition are particularly interesting. Amidst these glass shapes is a video of Ichikawa creating her pieces—pieces still made with glass, but that have ceased to yield concrete artifacts of their creation process. In this instance the glass is more of a catalyst than a medium. This combination is a perfect way to contrast the earliest experimentations in the Northwest to use glass as art with one of the newest. Etsuko Ichikawa’s pyrographs are magnificent on their own, but in this context they also become a testament to the creative spirit of artists who are continually looking for a new way to use the tools that they have.
Etsuko Ichikawa’s Exhibition Traces of the Molten State will be at the Bellevue Arts Museum through May 3rd, 2009. The exhibit is part of the ongoing exhibition series Material Evidence.