A World of Earth: Yamatane by Yusuke Asai at the Rice Gallery

Modern humanity has found itself disconnected from nature by technology and civilization. Can art help us reconnect with the Earth?

Yamatane at the Rice Gallery
Yamatane at the Rice Gallery

Yesterday afternoon I made a trip to the Rice Gallery on the campus of Rice University in Houston, Texas, to see an installation by painter Yusuke Asai called Yamatane, or “mountain seed”. Painted onto the walls and floor of the gallery is an intricate and mind-blowing ecosystem of animals, plants, geometric shapes and textures that pulsates across the space. Repetitive patterns and flowing, curving lines create an impressive sense of of motion. From a distance, one notices the sweeping contours of mountains and large figures, while, up close, small insects, animals and people pop out of the texture. The piece is almost overwhelming in its detail. Creatures often morph into plants or other creatures mid stroke and orbs float like bubbles in a scene right out of the Dreamtime. Like the natural world itself, the fanciful world of Yamatane cannot be comprehended completely. Wherever we choose to focus we miss something else, making it possible to find new things with every turn and every visit.

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photo 1I begin each work thinking of the countless small things that come together to make a larger world.

–Yusuke Asai

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The images themselves are extremely arresting, but the wonder expands once you realize that the entire scene is painted with dirt. Twenty-seven colors of Texas soil, mostly collected around Houston, but also featuring samples from west Texas, have been used to realize Asai’s vision. There is a striking amount of contrast: ochres, reds, browns, grays, neutrals and greens, even pinkish and purplish highlights.

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Asai practices spontaneous or automatic painting, one of my favorite techniques, in which he allows images to come out of his work without planning them ahead of time. Everything happens in the moment and the piece itself changes until it is finished. You can watch this process in the video below.

Yusuke Asai was born in the urban environment of Tokyo, Japan in 1981. In high school, he filled his textbooks with spontaneous doodles and drawings. After graduating with a concentration in ceramics, Asai didn’t have the means to attend university. Instead he decided to teach himself to paint. His education took place in zoos and museums, where he studied animals and art and watched people create things. He was particularly inspired by folk and tribal art. This is very evident in Yamatane, which combines folk elements from around the world, including indigenous cultures from all over the southern hemisphere, reconstituted through Asai’s subconscious.

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From the beginning of his career, Asai found it difficult to purchase art supplies and was drawn to materials he could afford. Over time, he developed an affinity for dirt, a renewable resource that was readily available. Not only did soil cost nothing, collecting it was a way to connect with and explore a world that was more than technology and concrete. It tied this city born youth to nature, giving him access to new visions of what the Earth might be.

Asai has built a career from his humble beginnings. He has painted all over Japan, exhibiting at the Aomori Contemporary Art Center and the Art Center Ongoing in Tokyo. His work has been featured at the Setouchi Triennale 2013, Rokko Meets Art 2012 and the Aichi Triennale 2010. Asai has also painted a classroom at the Niranjana School in Bihar, India as part of the Wall Art Project. Wherever he paints, he prefers to draw his materials from the surrounding environment, giving him a chance to explore the places he visits through their very soil.

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When I erase the painting it is sad, but within the context of the natural world, everything is temporary.

–Yusuke Asai

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This work is by nature ephemeral and impermanent. After November 23rd, when the exhibit closes, all of these fantastic beings, mountains and suns will be washed away, never to return again. If you are in Houston, go and see Yamatane. If you have never been, the Rice Gallery is a lovely installation space that allows you to move through the art and take photos if you like. It’s in Sewell hall on the Campus of Rice University. Admission is free. This is Asai’s first exhibition in the United States– we certainly hope he returns.

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Photos by Katherine McDaniel, 10/12/14

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