Kae Sasaki’s paintings have reached the shortlist for the Jackson’s Painting Prize for the past 2 years, impressing the judging panel with the masterful glowing light effects and the sense of enormity and grandeur within her I hear it well but scarcely grasp it series. In this interview the Canada-based, Japanese artist explains the thought processes behind her awe-inspiring body of work and explains why she treats her bamboo-pincher for gold leaf like her first-born!
Lisa: Tell us a little bit about your artistic background/education.
Kae: My name – Kae, means fragrant art in Japanese (which says it all!). My parents ran a design studio for a gravure printing press; my sister, trained in traditional Japanese painting, is a curator and scholar of modern Japanese art; my late uncle was an established painter; which leaves me a black sheep, who eventually turned herself around and put a lot of work and hours into becoming a competent painter! I attended Rikkyo University (https://english.rikkyo.ac.jp/) to study German literature while devouring countless national and international traveling art exhibitions, films, music and theatre productions coming through Tokyo by utilising steep student discounts whenever possible. I started attending School of Art (https://umanitoba.ca/schools/art/) after I moved to Canada, at first as an antidote to my full-time job in accounting(!) but gradually as a serious pursuit. I am very grateful that my day job allowed me to graduate with BFA Honours without student loan debt while raising two young children.
Lisa: How would you describe your practice?
Kae: I am primarily a representational oil painter with a recent focus in portraiture and opera houses. In my work I seek an imaginative revitalisation of the narrative and atmospheric potential of painting. I negotiate the ability of painting to create visual worlds that are both familiar and extraordinary, rooted in everyday corporeal and spatial experiences, yet taking off into the synthetic domain of image-signs. I begin by considering the composition and approach to colour, and I rework the paintings until they reveal unforeseen meanings that exist beyond any preconceived model. As the psychological component takes over, symbols and other elements are added to bring them forward so that the paintings would further open up in a multi-vocal way. The resulting conceptual conflict is perhaps what brings my work into focus, as the paintings become mysterious in a way that attenuates engagement. The layered meanings in my paintings emanate from a profound emotional connection to life experience that allows me to engage my interest in perception, memory and narrative with the ever-evolving, often conflicting nature of contemporary Canadian painting.
Lisa: Are the paintings from the series I hear it well but scarcely grasp it alluding to a specific theatre or experience?
Kae: The I hear it well but scarcely grasp it series culminated from my research of opera houses in Italy and France in 2017, among them Teatro alla Scala in Milan, where I attended Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, a beautiful but controversial opera due to the political view of Wagner himself, his anti-Semitic portrayal of characters as well as its inevitable later association with the Nazi propaganda. My first degree is in German literature and consequently I have studied German opera including Wagner’s but with regrettably very little reflection on political and historical implications at the time, in the mid-1990’s in Tokyo. I was stunned to feel discomfort overriding any pleasure I might have expected to experience once I realized I was a Japanese woman (married to a nice Jewish boy from Queens, New York) attending German opera written by a composer suspected of his antisemitism in once Mussolini’s Italy. The irony was perfectly felt. I was compelled to make paintings out of it.
Lisa: What was the motivation to paint the works?
Kae: I started painting opera houses in 2014 to break away from my focus in portraiture, and to playfully test the water for my interpretation of empty opera houses and theatres as self-indulgent echo-chamber, calming rabbit hole leading to endless navel gazing. In the beginning I was merely commenting on my art practice in a vacuum out of my freezing basement studio and not much more. Leading up to I hear it well but scarcely grasp it, I created Blue Vessel series of paintings of Opéra royal de Versailles and Teatro la Fenice through 2016, whose themes of echo chamber ended up resonating more with the political climate south of the Canadian border.
I am interested in the complexity of modern identity, and displacement that can be felt when straddling different cultures. I hear it well but scarcely grasp it series respond to Teatro alla Scala’s production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, resurrected by director Harry Kupfer in an allegorical post-war 1950s Germany. My attendance as Japanese patron at a German opera in once fascist Italy drew an uneasy, ironic parallel to the Berlin Pact of 1940, and my discomfort appeared to be shared by Italian audience as this opera had not been performed at la Scala for 27 years. How do we reconcile and rectify the cultural, or political appropriation of art, when our roles shift from perpetrators to victims of war, my perspective shifted from that of members of majority in a xenophobic country (Japan) to that of a visible minority in a multiracial/multicultural country (Canada)? I intended to depict the audiences as fragments of culture, bringing together disparate ideas that coagulate to suggest our hyper-connected yet fragile world.
Lisa: Can you describe how you went about painting the work? Was it the first time you worked with gold leaf?
Kae: The wooden panels are custom made, then I sand them down silky smooth to 1000 grid. A few coats of wood sealant, layers of under paint, two layers of gold-leaf to absolutely cover the surface, then when desired apply chemical treatment on the metal leaf to “age” the surface before sealing it. I draw the outlines and details with #1 brush and thinned burnt umber paint directly on gold-leafed surface. Then I start painting in thin layers, leaving as much gold surface as possible to reflect the light. I simultaneously work on a few panels to let the paint dry and spend weeks and months to complete them. Alternatively I block in large surfaces with acrylic paint first to speed up the initial process before I start painting with oil.
The first time I used gold-leaf was the night before the year-end crit (critique) of the first year of painting class in 2006. I didn’t know what to do with the background of a massive group figurative painting I was doing and just gold-leafed over my many attempts of getting it right. My painting professor was kind about my last-minute attempt to salvage my painting but I was embarrassed at the outcome and didn’t touch gold until the final year of art school. I incorporated gold-leaf and gold paint in my senior painting thesis which was 4 feet tall and 48 feet wide (in 24 panels installed side by side); and this was after spending the summer in Japan visiting my family and getting some intensive training on Japanese painting techniques including traditional gold-leafing from my curator sister. I transitioned to painting exclusively on gold-leafed panels after receiving a project grant shortly upon graduation which paid for the next three years’ worth of gold leaves. I’ve been hooked ever since.
Lisa: What would you say were the trickiest elements of the painting?
Kae: Capturing the lights without relying solely on gold. This involves experimenting with various glazing techniques to preserve the gold-leafed surface, and also just being patient with my process. The resulting paintings glow in the dark without much light source, and even more amazing in full light.
Lisa: What are your most important artist’s tools? Do you have any favourites?
Kae: I treat my only bamboo pincher for gold-leafing like my first-born, because it is what makes my art unique! I will fall apart if it ever gets lost or broken! I use mostly tiny #1 and #2 round brushes that I go though one a day; I am not fussy with them and just buy a fistful of good synthetic ones whenever possible. Anything larger I use only sable brushes; I rinse them with shampoo and conditioner (for human hair) and keep them in good condition for years.
Lisa: How would you describe a good day in the studio?
Kae: I wash up and immediately start working the minute my children leave for school, and only come up for air at lunchtime to eat leftovers in the fridge, run dishwasher and laundry, then back to painting until my phone buzzes to let me know the children are on their way home and it’s time to clean up. At the end of the day I jot down where to start the following day (hairline above right eye, cranes need feather details, more ochre on cheek, low on #2 brushes, etc.), then I start with that the note says the next day.
As a parent my motto is divide and conquer (with my husband to manage busy lives of our two children), but when it comes to art practice, I don’t believe in multitasking at all. I keep my studio time sacred and completely separated from grant writing and other desk work. I do consequently miss emails and grant application deadlines sometimes, but it means I am being productive and focused in my studio. (Though I would love to manage to do both well, equally.)
Lisa: What are your art influences? Who are your favourite contemporary artists?
Kae: Among my many art heroes, in terms of the use of allegory and gold-leaf, I look to works by Gustav Klimt a lot, because his inspiration came from both Byzantine imagery he saw while visiting Italy and most likely gold-leafed traditional Japanese folding screens he must have seen at the Japanese Pavilion of Vienna World’s Fair and onward around Vienna in his lifetime. I find it interesting that only through the lens of European fascination of Japanese art that I feel compelled to revisit my own heritage and appreciate and incorporate them in my practice. In terms of figurative work I am particularly drawn to the work by Gottfried Helmwein; his work as a means of social criticism and commentary, as a child growing up in Vienna in the 1950s and 1960s, confronted with the inability of adults to talk about the atrocities of the Third Reich, is one of my own inspirations to engage with my experience of attending Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg through I hear it well but scarcely grasp it series.
I absolutely admire the works of Eva Hesse, Sally Mann, Kiki Smith and Janine Antoni and have been following their careers since art school.
Lisa: What is coming up next for you and where can we see more of your art in the flesh or online?
Kae: I have recently been honoured with a nomination for the Kingston Prize (https://kingstonprize.ca/) for achievement in Canadian portraiture, and the finalist exhibition was held at Firehall Theatre at Thousand Island Playhouse in Gananoque, Ontario. I am incredibly proud to have been named a finalist for the third time. I also have a solo exhibition currently at Ace Art Inc., (https://www.aceart.org/) an established artist-run centre here in Winnipeg (unfortunately now closed due to the Coronavirus pandemic) to exhibit I hear it well but scarcely grasp it series in its entirety. I am grateful for the project grant I received from Manitoba Arts Council that enabled me to make additional works to complete the series. You can find out more at www.kaesasaki.com and @kaesasakiart on Instagram and Facebook.
Featured Image: ‘I hear it well but scarcely grasp it II’, 2018 by Kae Sasaki, oil on gold-leafed panel, 91 x 122 cm