She does the labor of painting.
She gets to make the art.
She is the vessel.
She wrestles infinity to the ground and makes it work.
Place your body in relation to a Takenaga painting.
Delight in catastrophe.
Wrestle yourself to the ground.
Feel good about it.
On a beautiful Berkshire afternoon in October, I took a meandering 50 minute ride north from my home to experience Barbara Takenaga’s spiritually cosmic works at the Williams College Museum of Art. Takenaga was scheduled for an interview by abstract painter Tom Burckhardt at 4:00 pm that day. It was an intimate event held in the gallery, where we sat quietly among her swirling astral paintings. As a recent and attentive (64-year-old) MFA graduate, I brought my sketchbook and pen to take lots of notes.
Following, are some highlights from the Williams College exhibition and discussion.
Takenaga described her exposure to the strong and mature women associated with the cooperative AIR Gallery (Artists in Residence) in New York as a formative experience. One that introduced her to first wave feminism. Outwardly, her paintings don’t seem overtly feminist but inwardly Takenaga says they are. She believes that “Feminism demands a reliance on the personal and that the personal is political.” The underpinnings of her paintings are described as dot-based and cellular. Non-representational. Not figurative. Despite the lack of mimetic self representation Takenaga clearly believes the work is personal.
Takenaga asked Burckhardt, “Should I put more Asian women in my work?” She asked him if work has to have an actual representation of you as a person in order to be a reflection of you?
Burckhardt responded “How could it not be? It’s who you are.”
She went on to say, “My work gets too revealing. It’s embarrassing. Good work makes you feel embarrassed.”
In addition to embarrassingly personal, Takenaga described her works as slightly threatening and overwhelming. They are process driven pieces simultaneously proximate to both catastrophe and delight. Takenaga sees the laborious and repetitive process of making dots as “pleasurable.” She told us that, “…when she paints, she’s free-handing.” She sees the work, “as it starts to happen.” Her work might seem somewhat random, but in fact, it is very directed. These are some words Takenaga used throughout her discussion with Burckhardt to describe the process.
Tantric. Pleasurable. Corporeal. Invisible. Open. Imperfect. Naturally. Formidable. Infinitessimal.
She told us that she’s always been rebellious and that the feeling and experience of being rebellious delights her. Although her mother acknowledged her creativity in early childhood, the expectation of Barbara’s Asian family was for her to become a doctor. In addition, there was no art education in Nebraska, so she learned about art in grade school by looking at photographs of art. Only three or four other Asian families lived in her small town in North Platte Nebraska where she was born in 1949. Takenaga went to the University of Colorado, Boulder as an English major but later changed her major to Art. She never imagined that she could have an art career. She never thought she could live in New York. She thought it was too late for her. Some of her college professors even told her that she was a terrible painter.
When viewed as a whole Barbara Takenaga’s oeuvre reads like an autobiography of sorts. And, Takenaga’s obsession with death pervades the work. Making dots became a form of mourning the death of her mother. She wants us to understand that her work isn’t related to fractals or mathematics even though it looks mathematical to her it is spiritual.
Takenaga said that, “infinity tires her and scares her.” And that, “to many, the paintings are deeply spiritual. To me, they also seem to shout about life and death.”
Burckhardt asked, “Where do you, where does the viewer position oneself in the work?”
Takenaga answered that she is oriented to surface. Her locus work has a point just above center – ⅔ up – like portrait work.
When asked, “Where is your body in relation to your work?” Takenaga responded, “Centered and radiating in and out.”
Takenaga draws with her brushes, makes a skeleton, adds muscle. She loves the labor of painting and brings her midwestern work ethic to her rigorous studio practice. She could never be a fast painter – the labor has to be visible and even though very little hand gesture is evident, her bodily energy is palpable. Compositional elements are simplified, magnified, flat. These observations are influenced by the Nebraska landscape of her childhood and photographic representations of things.
“My intention is not to be so controlling or to know where I’m going, but my personality is not.”
“I’m entrenched in the unmoving two-dimensional.” (Takenaga)
by Ilene Spiewak, MFA
Proximity Arts, Founding Member