Rebecca Salter’s, RA work is part of ARTUNER’s fourth curated exhibition at Cassina Projects in New York, which opened May 3rd 2017 in the Chelsea space. Before the inauguration of the show we met with Rebecca in her London studio to discuss her practice, the impact Japanese culture has had on her work, and the importance of ’empty space’.
‘In Praise of Shadows’ will remain open until June 17th 2017 at 508 W 24th St, New York.
Alisei Apollonio: You originally started your path as an artist with porcelain, as a ceramicist. But then, your first journey to Japan eventually led you to move away from pottery and to approach painting. This is very interesting, as usually Japan is not a country associated with the tradition of painting. Would you like to tell us about this change, and how your permanence in Japan shaped your approach to painting?
Rebecca Salter: The move was not completely unpredictable. When I worked in ceramics I painted on very thin sheets of low-fired clay so in a way they were already paintings. So leaving ceramics behind and moving to work on Japanese paper first and then canvas later seemed quite natural. The approach to materials in Japan made the transition possible.
What did first lead you to experiment with texture in your pictorial work? Usually a painting is a mostly flat surface, whereas here, in your works, grain is clearly at the centre of the stage.
I think to some extent that comes from having been trained in ceramics first where texture and the material are very important. Although I say that I am a painter, I really feel that I am making paintings ‘as objects’.
One thing that really fascinates me about your tessellated series [such as H2, featured in In Praise of Shadows] is the story behind them. There, the British landscape comes together with your Japan-inspired techniques, and much more, creating works that are at the intersection of painting, collage, mosaic, and textile. How did you come up with this solution?
The idea to cut up the original drawings/paintings came out of an attempt to try to capture the speed of the changing weather and how it ‘disrupted’ the landscape. I wanted the final lines in my paintings to be disrupted in a similar way. Working with cut lines fixed within a square gave me a new material to draw with. The finished paintings have an underlying frenzy of activity which is overlaid with a serene calm.
Your works are very contemplative: often repeated gestures create vast swathes of what could be seen as optical white noise – giving the illusion of silence, of empty space when in fact there is a lot going on. This is an intriguing twist on the teachings of the Hasegawa School; how did you develop your interest in communicating through absence?
An understanding of the power of white space is fundamental to eastern art and it is hard not to be drawn in by it if you are living in Japan. The idea of ‘empty’ space not being ‘empty’ but full of potential is very compelling. The repeated marks/gestures which cover the surface of my work appear obsessive but strangely the constant activity can result in a sense of stability or calm.
I once read that you became very interested in the potentialities for narration offered by the scroll in Japanese art. Obviously your work is not narrative in a strict sense – so how do you use this idea of narration in your paintings?
The Japanese picture scrolls are very sophisticated visual devices for combining word and picture and I find the composition of the images very powerful in the subtle way they both persuade the viewer to look backwards and to look forwards and anticipate the next scene. The boundaries of the image seem permeable.
ARTUNER’s new exhibition at Cassina Projects, In Praise of Shadows borrows its title from an essay by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki that is very important for you. What is it that you like about it?
I think it is a very personal and moving account of the changes which happened so quickly in post-war Japan and how easy it is to lose seemingly insignificant things which subsequently you discover are hugely important. If you have experience of Japanese architecture, Tanizaki’s comments on the way light works with form will make perfect sense. He also writes beautifully about the use of materials.
I would like to know a little bit more about your relationship with calligraphy, the Japanese language with its ideograms and how this bears on your work…
I would never claim to have trained in calligraphy but it is impossible to ignore in Japan as it is the highest art form in the East. Using the calligraphic line in the West can be a risky decision because it will usually be far inferior to the work of a proper calligrapher and there is always the problem of the line having inherent meaning in the East and not in the West.
In the past you talked about ‘a state of skilled “unknowing”’ – necessary to keep the line ‘alive’ in the creation of your paintings. Could you tell us more about that?
Acquiring skill in drawing or painting is obviously important but there is a danger in becoming too skilled and then the line can die. Ideally you learn a skill both intellectually and physically to such an extent that you can then choose to become ‘unskilled’ and revitalize the line. It is important to somehow keep an ‘edge’, an undpredicatbility, to the way you work.
Your palette appears very sombre, subdued. What importance do you give to colour?
My work appears to be very grey and monotone but in fact in many paintings there is bright colour underneath and it is only when your eyes have time to relax and settle, that the underlying comes through. So perhaps this is a plea to spend more time looking at art.