Shinji Turner-Yamamoto on the Nature of Things
By Laura P. Yoo
Cincinnati is no stranger to the work of internationally recognized artist Shinji Turner-Yamamoto. He marveled viewers with his site-specific Hanging Garden installation (part of his larger Global Tree Project) at the Holy Cross Church in Mt. Adams in 2010. Developing site-specific work is Turner-Yamamoto’s strength. He inhabits a space and is able to transform the way in which it is experienced through his use of materials from nature. Even in his most recent exhibition of paintings at the Phyllis Weston Gallery, titled DE RERUM NATURA: on the nature of things, painting is not his medium: nature is. In a statement from the artist, he says, “My creative journey centers on the search for and affirmation of manifestations of universal connections between mankind and nature.”
In his ongoing body of paintings, Turner-Yamamoto’s colors are handmade from natural materials like peat, ash, soot, henna, flower petals, even crystals. He does pull in some man-made details. These include things like fragments from nineteenth-century Japanese kimonos, and 24-kt gold leaf. Turner-Yamamoto’s inspiration for a number of these works grew out of a fall and winter artist residency he did in Kerry, Ireland in 2004. The artist was working near Bolus Head, a hill off the mainland which offers views of Skellig Michael Island at the westernmost reach of Ireland. He says here he was enveloped by the power of nature—the wind, rain, the beautiful verdant hills. He says he saw rainbows every day. While he was inspired by the natural beauty of Ireland, Turner-Yamamoto’s paintings do something other than just draw us into that experience—they crystallize a moment in time. It’s as if he lets nature happen to him, and in that intersection, he creates.
For example, some of the surface textures seen in works like Light (2008) and Rainbow (2008) were provided by falling rain. Turner-Yamamoto would start with a drawing, add layers of ash and soot, and then let the rain leave its imprint on the surface. One day when he was working on some of these “rain drawings,” he walked outside to find local sheep trying to eat them. Moonbow (2008) evokes images of far away galaxies, with its rainbow emerging from a dark, starry sky, but then you also see the small lock of sheep’s wool that fell onto the surface that is now also part of the work. Again, it’s in that intersection with nature that the work is created. The rainbow drawing is revealed so luminously through the ash—the ash that was touched by the rain, by the sheep, by the artist. These works are meant to capture Ireland’s beautiful shifting skies—the ethereal way light breaking through storm clouds reflects off the mist and fog, the colors it creates.
In Sleeping Vishnu Tree (2005), Turner-Yamamoto recalls the experience of seeing a large uprooted oak tree in a park. When he returned several days later, all that remained was the scarred earth and a mound of soil. Working with henna, Turner-Yamamoto drew a supine tree floating in a sea of gold leaf applied using Byzantine techniques. Surrounded by these gold droplets, it’s as if the tree is being carried off. He says, “I wanted the tree to lie and sleep, envisioning a new world like the dream of the world that emerges from the Indian god Vishnu’s navel in the form of a lotus flower.”
On January 8, the Phyllis Weston Gallery will also unveil a series of plant fiber-based sculptures by Shinji Turner- Yamamoto. This selection of work comes from his Petals of the Universe series which was created in Finland using cotton and linen seed fibers, and local plant fiber. “In the western papermaking process,” says Turner-Yamamoto, “very short plant fibers are initially held together through the application of strong pressure. This process impressed me with its similarity to the geological force that creates sedimentary rock. Petals of the Universe was conceived while working with tansy flower fiber. As it dried, the material acquired its own unique undulating shape, as if recalling the flowering of its blossoms.”
DE RERUM NATURA: on the nature of things, as well as the exhibition of Turner-Yamamoto’s sculpture, will be on view at the Phyllis Weston Gallery through January 31, 2013.