Climbing the mountain
Full of thoughts Coming down
Toshiko Miki does not often write poems. She hands me a dozen – two new ones since my last visit in 2009. Maybe she is overly critical about this way of expressing herself? “I am not a real poet,” she shrugs. “It’s a different language, I only use words when I have to.” In spite of this, once in a while she relieves herself of an idea so sparingly voiced and yet to the point that it becomes pure poetry. In ten words she climbs a mountain and returns transformed.
In sharp contrast to this frugality stands her production of drawings and paintings. No matter how stressful other obligations are, Toshi will find an opportunity to wander off to her studio and start making gestures on paper and canvas. It’s a daily ritual, just as habitual as cleaning the body and preparing food. Her hand starts dancing as soon as it grabs a pencil and finds a scrap of paper. There is hardly a notion of beginning or ending to it, only a deeply rooted urge for continuity. Do not think that her swirling lines can be read as a diary. She refrains from signs, images, ideas and emotions that are stocked and labeled by the millions in our memory. What Toshi practices is a form of endless improvisation in a very abstract way. “Making art is getting rid of daily noise,” she says. “I want to be free. The trick is to become empty.”
Over forty years of experience have made her an expert dancer. Sitting straight and alert her hand dances like a leaf in the wind, leaving behind airy traces. Pencils, markers and brushes, sometimes only a piece of cloth drenched in Japanese ink, touch ground like footprints in the snow and she instantly knows what it’s worth. Quality is not something to reason about. Toshi is very honest and straight forwarded in her likes and dislikes about food, health, art and people, without becoming judgmental. Why bother with fleeting incidents when the ultimate goal is to achieve an empty mind? It would be a mistake to relate her work to celebrated artists like Pollock and Twombly. Although she knows and respects the highlights of western art history, Toshi Miki was raised in the east. She studied in Tokyo and her work roots in the Japanese Sumi-e technique with its instantaneous brushwork. Nevertheless, she is an American artist. She arrived young in New York and transformed like every immigrant. She raised her daughter the American way and committed herself to Mike Edge, a respectable artist in his own field. In forty years, their marriage has become a unique dialogue between two opposite souls.
Despite all differences they maintain a perfect balance in life and work. Their mutual presentation at Pioneer Bluffs is proof of this.
To fully understand the ‘duet’ of Michael Edge and Toshiko Miki you have to picture the northern desert of New Mexico. Red rock under a blue sky. Severe drought with lightning at the horizon and devastating forest fires. Hummingbirds and rattle snakes. Close to the site where Georgia O’Keeffe became a legend they bought a good stretch of land and built their own dwellings. After an adobe ‘casita’ as starting quarters, Mike constructed a wood frame studio/workshop to tackle an even bigger job. Their final home, including a dreamy studio for Toshi, was made with the tried and tested straw bale technique that keeps out heat and cold. The whole site reflects the grandeur of the desert. Mud walls, naked wood and meticulously crafted furniture create a sense of esthetics that borders austerity. Western minimalism meets Japanese finesse. Space is all around. Both artists retreat to their own territory to explore their own path, but at the end of the day they meet again in the center.
Michael Edge, who was educated on the East Coast, could easily be labeled as a constructivist, but his designs are far too intuitive for that. True, he often uses a ruler. He likes the clean cut form, the spotless color field, the fine tuned balance of a well considered composition. His hand doesn’t dance as inimitable as Toshi’s, but does that make him the opposite artist? Look closer at his work and observe how subtle and sensitive he operates. Do you notice the ‘invisible cut’ that defines a recent series of paintings? Ponder that idea for a few minutes. When put in a bigger perspective, a world of emotions presents itself: cutting is painful, but the surgeon’s scalpel works miracles. Not every cut in life is obvious. When healed, what is left?
Let’s make it clear that Michael Edge is not a conceptual artist merely with ideas. He simply loves to play with metal, wood, ink or paint. In spite of the precision in the execution his work is never ‘engineered’. He seeks the ‘unseen’ form and what he uncovers with utmost care is never heavy. Metal frames, cutting airy spaces in the sky. Painted sticks that dwindle on a canvas like the game of ‘Mikado’ – move one stick out and everything shifts. Deep down I sense a longing to escape the known dimensions. His works on canvas can be seen as flat abstracts, but they hint ever so subtly to multiple layers and for the careful observer they become sculptural. At the other hand his metal sculptures have a tendency to flatness. They do not impress by volume and mass. They seek to blend in with the landscape and to match its limitless dimensions: the never-ending sky, the unstoppable weeds. Michael Edge is a soft-spoken but courageous sculptor. In all modesty he shows us how to break through the limits of our perception.
Life and work cannot be separated. The landscape invades the minds of both artists. But comparing the two players in this show makes us realize how free a human being can be when he, or she, descends from the mountain with an empty mind.
Text by Hendrik van Leeuwen,The Netherlands
Writer, artist, curator of this show
Kim Russo about Toshi Miki in The Albuquerque Journal, March 20, 2008:
INNER SENSE … The artist closes her eyes and trusts her instincts
In the liner notes for the Miles Davis album “Kind of Blue” the legendary pianist Bill Evans wrote, “There is a Japanese visual art in which the artist is forced to be spontaneous. He must paint on a thin stretched parchment with a special brush and black water paint in such a way that an unnatural or interrupted stroke will destroy the line or break through the parchment. Erasures or changes are impossible. These artists must practice a particular discipline, that of allowing the idea to express itself in communication with their hands in such a direct way that deliberation cannot interfere.”
Evans was comparing the practice of Japanese ink drawing or calligraphy with improvisational jazz. He was highlighting the nature of Miles Davis’ particular way of playing: spontaneous, intuitive, natural – without a predetermined outcome, without picking and choosing.
Toshi Miki (…) paints like improvisational jazz. In fact, she closes her eyes when she picks up the brush, trusting her inner sense of how to move the line across the surface. She works with thin washes of paint on unprimed canvas, so erasure is impossible. When asked if she ends up throwing a lot of canvases away she says, “No, it’s very rare.” She is usually satisfied with the outcome – as long as she trusts herself and doesn’t think too much.
One of her largest and most impressive painting(s), “Swimming Together II,” is 77 by 206 inches – a cacophony of color, particularly yellow and blue, in rounded shapes and thin, dark lines. Miki thinks of these works as “double paintings.” The lines, which she draws first, make the first painting, and the blocks of color create the second painting.
Miki’s paintings are abstract color fields of work – a fusion of Clyfford Still and Robert Motherwell, particularly in the way she uses line, shape, and areas of the raw canvas. Her color, though, is more like Helen Frankenthaler’s.
Harold Rosenberg (…) described the canvas as “an area on which to act” and the activity of the Abstract Expressionists as an “unconscious manifestation of pure creation.” Their paintings were the concrete documentation of experience rather than pictures of it. This describes Miki’s work perfectly. (…) Miki’s paintings are beautifully articulated and sincere.
In a similar large work, “New York to New Mexico,” Miki uses a desert palette that she painted onto the canvas in New Mexico over linear marks she painted on the canvas in New York. The synthesis of place and process makes this work even more contemporary and interesting.