Masao Yamamoto routinely flies 'round the world setting up one-of-a-kind installations of his mixed-media photos.
In the last few years he's had solo shows in the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, New York, Brazil, China and his native Japan. Tucson is the latest to get one of his sought-after hand-created installations: Yamamoto was in town last month to create six wall assemblages of his tiny, poetic pictures at Etherton Gallery.
His installations and free-standing photos are part of the exhibition Sonnets of Light, which assembles a trio of artists who create quiet simplified visions of nature.
Yamamato originally trained as a painter, and his delicate, dreamy pictures—of tree branches, of female nudes, of flames in the night—are rough-edged and beautifully toned, sometimes painted on the surface and occasionally burned.
In the unnamed installation designated "left wall, center" for its location within the gallery space, Yamamato has just three miniature pictures. They're arranged just so, in a stair-step scheme, with the negative spaces between them just as important as the images themselves.
The pictures are just 3 or 4 inch squares or rectangles, so small that by design you have to work to see them. A casual glance doesn't do the trick: Yamamoto wants the viewer to gaze and reflect. In the installation's top photo, the soft white shape against warm sepia black appears at first to be a white vase, maybe, or a long-necked bird. Only on closer inspection does it reveal itself to be a naked woman startlingly posed, her legs thrust toward the ceiling. All that we can see of her are the backs of those crossed legs and the curve of her buttocks forming a heart shape on the floor. Her body is as simple and lovely as a pen-and-ink sketch, as compressed in form as a haiku.
Below the nude is a dim glimpse of a fire softly glowing; to the right of the woman is an assemblage of tree branches elegantly shot against a white sky. Those fragments of trees are a reminder that this photog—so in demand in the contemporary art world—is deeply steeped in the ancient art of Asia.
The entry corridor to the gallery is hung with 19 gorgeous stand-alone gelatin silver prints that recall the watercolor and pen-and-ink landscapes of China and Japan, a genre that goes back at least to the Middle Ages. Like those traditional works, these images from Yamamoto's Kawa-Flow series take a long view of a simplified landscape: four clouds skitter over the line where sky meets sea, a hillside slopes diagonally down toward glistening waves, and a distant mountain peak is swathed in fog and framed by branches.
Others zero in on a solitary animal or plant: a single white bird alighting on a pond or a lone dark tree shot against white.
One of the most enchanting of these lyrical works is "#1521." It's a classic of the Asian landscape genre. A bare branch arcs across the sky, below the clouds and above the ridgeline of a distant mountain. Though it's a gelatin silver photo, you can almost imagine a Japanese ink painter of centuries ago loosely painting its washes of sky and earth in shades of gray, and then loading the brush with deep black ink to trace the twigs that shimmy along the branch.
There's a spiritual dimension to all this, too, with the pared-down landscape reflecting ideals of simplicity. Yamamoto's minimalist vision is also partially shaped by haiku, the Japanese poetic form that limits the number of sounds and typically lauds nature. Both of the other artists in Sonnets of Light also have a relationship with poetry. Phoenix artist Mayme Kratz, who makes lyrical assemblages of colored resin and objects from the natural world, is a poet of words as well. And Charles Grogg, a self-taught master of the difficult art of platinum/palladium photography, is a California English teacher who immerses his students in poetry.
In contrast to some of Yamamoto's tiny images of big plants, Grogg makes photos of small plants, or parts thereof—a bonsai tree, a flower, a leaf—and prints them out big. A single blossom fills most of the 16-by-20-inch paper in "Dianthus"; the tiny tree in "Bonsai (Rubble)," greatly enlarged, pushes up against the top of the print's 36-inch height.
Known for its wide range of tones, the old-fashioned platinum printing process all by itself gives a soft, painterly quality to Grogg's black-and-white photos—and their gray backgrounds are not unlike the inklike washes in Yamamoto's landscapes. Instead of using the usual glossy slippery photo paper, Grogg heightens the painterly effect by printing the images on textured sheets of Japanese paper.
Grogg manipulates his prints, but he doesn't paint on them the way Yamamoto does. Instead he turns them into one-of-a-kind art objects that veer ever so slightly toward sculpture. He cuts what he calls his "fractured photographic images" into nine squares and prints each one individually. Then he stitches the piece back together with waxed cotton thread or beading wire and mounts them on Japanese paper.
Sometimes he adds more stitches along a stem or root, pushing the photos farther into the 3-D realm. And he doesn't necessarily line the squares up precisely. He deliberately changes the tones from square to square, announcing that this is nature deconstructed and then reconstructed through the artifice of art.
In her resin-plus-found-object constructions, Kratz has pioneered a new half-sculptural, half-painterly genre. She has long embedded natural materials—shells, pods, thistles—into the waxy layers of resin. Her resin colors have always been beautiful, and subtle: maize, gray-blue, burnt orange. What's new is that she's now gone large. She's still doing her lovely smaller-scale riffs on nests and grassy knots, but she's also moved on into the universe.
You can get lost in the deep space of big works like "Falling Star" and "Across the Velvet Dark 3." In the first, 4 feet square, pieces of straw-colored grasses are airlifted from their earthly terrain into a rich brown sky, metamorphosing along the way into a heavenly starburst.
And in "Velvet Dark," even more expansive at 5 feet on a side, hundreds of small white shells cascade like shooting stars over rays of green light.