Scenes from Biblical, mythological, or other classical narratives were the standard subject matter of "history painting" for centuries. The choice of what moment in the story to depict was a crucial opportunity for individual artistic expression within the conventions of the era. With Modernism in general, and Abstract Expressionism in particular, artists made a radical break from external, sequential narrative to an interior, atemporal moment, from literal battle scenes to metaphoric struggles from an artist's personal life. This continues to be seen in many galleries today, where highly personal work about an artist's anxieties over war, terror, sexuality, the environment, and mortality are presented, untethered to any particular chronology.
Etsuko lchikawa's work brings time and narrative back into the equation. Her drawings with molten glass on paper are all about the moments she has chosen in the heat of her performance to let her molten glass "paintbrush" come to rest on the paper, scorching it with its heat. In an interview, Ichikawa called it her way of "capturing a fleeting moment and eternalizing it." While the work is far from being impersonal, the artist focuses less on her own interior narrative and more o n the story of the physical making of the art. What makes the work fresh is the combination of physical intensity and emotional reticence.
If you search among online images for "pyrography," you'll find thousands of works that look nothing like lchikawa's. An old craft, pyrography has generally meant making patterns or images by burning wood or leather with a hot object such as a poker. The work often produces a stippled effect, laboriously created by one small burn after another.
lchikawa's work has nothing to do with precise Victorian pyrography as she pulls ropes of molten glass across 300-pound h o t -press paper, creating both line and volume with big sweeping gestures. She gathers the glass, blows it, and then works it across the surface of the paper, rolling, dragging, and almost tossing it. Sometimes she seems to brand the paper with glass shaped in an optic mold; or she rolls the molded glass across the paper, creating a pattern that looks like a fossil record of some unknown creature's backbone.
In her recent exhibition at the Bellevue Arts Museum (recently extended to May 3, 2009), lchikawa's installation Traces of the Molten State (2008) features three scrolls, each nearly 26 feet in length and more than four feet in width. These hang vertically from floor to ceiling in the first landing of the museum's central staircase. The long flowing marks on the outside panels seem to hang and sway from the top of the paper; the marks on the middle panel, made with molded glass turned and pulled across the paper, seems to rise up from the earth like patterned smoke.
A larger and more complex installation is on display at BAM's Pilchuck Glass School Gallery. Walk with Mist (2008) includes a curving wall of 14 pyrographs on paper, each suspended from a framework, backlit in places, front lit in others. In the confined space you might see the marks on the paper as cave paintings, or as the residue of ancient smoky fires. Hanging from a monofilament line attached to a frame in the ceiling are 788 hand-blown and sandblasted clear glass spheres, each at the same distance from the floor, creating a suspended plane (it took Ichikawa and the museum crew five days to install them). From the ceiling, a video of fire projects across the suspended glass balls. The walls of smoky, burned paper curve around the room, the glass balls seem to hover, and the light and color of the video flicker over the surface. Each element adds a sense of movement and instability of constant change.
Ichikawa is interested in both constant change and abiding memories. She says that her work embraces "ever-changing states of mind" and brief moments that may last in memory and even be handed to another generation. She writes (in wall text in the installation) that Walk with Mist relates to two personal memories, each involving nature, light, and silence. The first occurred in a forest in Okuhida, "a sacred region in Japan surrounded by majestic mountain ranges. It was only in the blink of an eye that the surrounding mist cleared long enough for the mountain to be seen." The second event was seeing a "shaft of sunlight piercing a dark cave in Valladolid in Mexico. The embraced air was so crisp that I felt there was no sound around me. They were very beautiful and silent moments that I will remember for my lifetime."
lchikawa's interests dictate her choice of medium, including glass, glass pyrography, and recently, video. She writes that her pyrography is made "by drawing [with] hot molten glass -that is one way to capture and eternalize the immediacy of a moment" and that blown glass is "a memory of human breath." She is quick to evade the label of "glass artist" and speaks of herself as an artist who chooses various mediums, including glass. "When you know the results that you want, you know what materials you want to use," she says. Even so, she has a long commitment to glass, studying at Tokyo Glass Art Institute and also many summer sessions at the Pilchuck Glass School, and her years of study have prepared her to work with glass to get the results she wants. Glass as a material suits Ichikawa conceptually too, because as she says, "The reason I love it is that it's always changing. Glass is a supercool liquid. It becomes liquid at 1,000 degrees. When we see glass, we see a frozen liquid."
lchikawa's glass pyrography series began with an accident. In 2004, assisting an artist-in-residence at Pilchuck Glass School, she saw hot glass dropped on the concrete floor. The artist was surprised by how beautiful the mark was, and her surprise led her to a new way of making glass art. Ichikawa developed her pyrography by drawing on sources such as Surrealist automatic drawing and free improvisation in music and dance, which reflect her ideas about being rooted in the physical. Besides balancing change and memory, her work balances the physical nature of her medium and the physical movement of her body. She describes herself as very focused person, especially when she is working, and to her, part of the focus is keeping the body flexible to adapt to the material as it changes. In the end, the work that is eventually exhibited eternalizes not only the memory of the molten state, but also the memory of the balletic performance that created it.
In some of her work, Ichikawa tells two stories, each in a different tempo, as she deliberately plays her fast medium, glass pyrography, against very slow mediums. In her "Tsurezuregusa" series (2007), she combines glass pyrography with texts embossed onto the paper with a letterpress. She writes that the working processes of pyrography and letterpress require very different kinds of discipline and mental approaches. In contrast to working as quickly as possible with the molten glass to prevent the paper catching on fire, she spends hours hand-setting the type to print the texts. Likewise, in Walk with Mist, the long, scroll-like pyrographs record a quick, intense physical performance; the same piece also incorporates the 788 two-inch glass spheres, each one methodically sand-blasted.
Ichikawa has drawn on disparate sources as her work has developed. There is the Japan of her childhood, where she grew up in a home filled with traditional art and craft; and there is the world of glass, which she first discovered in Tokyo and went on to study in the United States.
Looking at lchikawa's glass pyrography without knowing the process, you might assume that the results had flowed from a brush. She acknowledges a similarity to Japanese calligraphy, especially sousho, the most fluid and illegible style, in which the artist may write whole
characters without lifting the brush from the paper. She compares the glass to ink, and the patterned burns from the molded glass to calligraphy made with bundled brushes. Watching her video Traces of the Molten State (2008), you clearly see the correlation between calligraphy ("beautiful writing") and pyrography ("fire writing"). Unlike other video artists who have filmed her process, Ichikawa has taken herself out of her film's narrative. All you see is the end of the blowpipe, loaded with hot glass, sweeping over and burning the paper, or liquid tendrils of glass, whipped across the paper's surface like a fencer's foil.
Many of her viewers experience lchikawa's work as ethereally beautiful, delicate, and evocative, and it is all that. Curator Stefano Catalani writes of "the quiet, slow-paced and sacred environment [that she offers] to the audience," and that's there too. Ichikawa speaks of nature as a big influence on her, and of Zen as a path to a spiritual connection to nature. There's another, tougher side, though, to her slash-and-burn technique.
It would be easy to apply her narrative to the stories of our own lives; to compare her burned and scarred paper to the marks that remain on each o f us, the burns we've accumulated during our lives, on our bodies or our spirits. Ichikawa says that in her work she investigates
"what lies between the ephemeral and the eternal," and it may, indeed, turn out to be ourselves.
An exhibition of the work of Etsuko Ichikawa is on view at the Bellevue Arts Museum and has been extended through May 3, 2009. For more information:
VICTORIA JOSSL/N is the founder of artdish.com, on online magazine about the visual arts in the Northwest.