Visual Arts

Nobuko Tanabe: The Music of the Sea

One of the pleasures of looking at contemporary art comes with the discovery of an artist’s work which is not only coherent and cognizant of itself, but is also able to bring us fully into it’s own world, with clarity and gentle confidence. Such has been my encounter with the lyrical and subtle work of the Japanese artist Nobuko Tanabe, currently on view at the Montserrat Gallery in Chelsea, New
York City, (547 West 27th St, Suite 516). Tanabe’s work is completely evocative of the sea, and the light and colors beneath its surface. It is a place where I am happy to let her take me.

“Muddy Stream” Nobuko Tanabe

Tanabe is from Tokyo, and has had numerous shows there, and also in New York. She has been written about before in this magazine at regular intervals, seemingly in parallel with the development of her work. I would like to report that in this current work, she has reached a fine state of development; she has arrived at a point of obvious lucidity and clarity. Dare I say that certain of her prior artistic experiments can be considered sucessfully concluded? Such is the case. The work she is now presenting is a skilled combination of texture and color, as before. The artist uses very fine Japanese paper to construct rippling patterns of waveforms, to which she then applies color of natural and organic tones: blues, greens, browns. The result is a work of sinuous form, subtle color and uminescence. She has used these techniques often in her past work, but these elements have now come together masterfully.

But first, Music. I must talk about her work in terms of music, because the works evoke more than the merely visual. Contrasted with the purely visual arts, music is a different art form in it’s temporal quality. But it is to me the most clearly connected art form to Tanabe’s. I really don’t feel comfortable in discussing Tanabe’s paintings (if you even wish to call them that) in terms of so-and-so’s brushwork, or someone else’s thematic concerns. No, I can’t be satisfied in discussing only that pertaining to the visual. The works seem to conjure up a temporal element, a music of their own: the time in which they are within your field of view, and later, the time that their image remains in the mind’s eye. Tanabe’s paintings are pieces of music that create their own sensations in the mind. Yes, the eyes are necessary to perceive the color, but the ‘tones’ of the painting come to me much as the tones of a cello played solo, a Debussy nocturne, (or of course, “La Mer”), come through the ear into the intuitive part of the brain. Might one even refer to Tanabe’s works by familiar names such as “Sonata” or “Suite”? Yes, perhaps, but I am reluctant to use such words descriptive of Western Classical music, with it’s definitions, forms and boundaries. This is one quality of the Western tradition that is comfortably abandoned here. Really, these works play their own music, a more natural music. They make me think of the “music” of waves breaking on a pebbly shore.

In talking about these works, I am reluctant to begin making connections to other Western artists of various periods, or adding to the discussion of East/West aesthetics. Comparisons of her work have been made in the past to the artists of the New York School (Pollock, de Kooning, et al), also to the Color Field painters (Olitski, Rothko), and even to the (widely differing) impasto techniques of Van Gogh and Albert Pinkham Ryder. All of these comparisons can be found and pointed out, it is true. But there is something about Tanabe’s lyrical paintings which makes me want to expand the creative comparisons far beyond that of the painted image, beyond the two dimensional form of a work held within the confines of a frame; beyond the confines of a gallery wall, beyond the confines of even an object. These works seem to be a small portion of something much more vast: the Oceans of the Earth. The work seems to easily bypass the idea of boundaries, to extend beyond the framed pictures placed on the gallery wall. They have an open and limitless quality; they seem to be a microscopic portion of something immense. Water, but great, unlimited expanses of water. The sea, perhaps, which surrounds the homeland of the artist, deep and pure, with only the very slightest hint of the potential for the danger of the sea, of the destructive tsunami that have struck the Japanese islands over the centuries. This is not, however, the sea in which Tanabe chooses to immerse us. We see the gentle subtleties of a clear sea and the light which penetrates it’s surface, changed and colored by it’s passage through these waters, and the movements of the light over the surfaces beneath the waters. The paintings make us think of the light blending on equal terms with the colored surfaces below the water. As it would be when one peers into the clear sea from above.

But there is a much fuller experience available to those who are able to take the next step: actually entering the world of light and water and color, as these works take us. I cannot help but think of an experience I once had in the sea, on a trip to another side of the planet. Camped by the edge of some of the clearest water in the world, I had not originally conceived of this world existing right in front of me. But it called me in. I went into the sea immediately and spent hours every day there. The visibility in this sea is astounding, 100 feet or more, including straight down. At the time, I was equipped only with a mask and snorkel tube, and was content to putter along the surface of the water, viewing with amazement the spectacle of colors, patterns and textures laid out all around me. The changes the water made to the light and colors below was something utterly invisible to those who would never venture below the surface of the water. With just the mask, I could penetrate only so far. A couple of days later, irresistibly and inevitably, I made my first scuba dive, entering this world bodily.

This is the sense of Tanabe’s works that impresses me. It is not merely a window, like the glass of the snorkel mask, to some other kind of vision. It is a journey fully below the surface, not only as an entry point, but also a portion of the journey itself. This is what successful art does, in my book. It shows you something that is there for the Seeing, but also there for the Feeling and the Imagining. A thing which is a complete world of its own, and a clear evocation of that world. And, most significantly, perhaps, we learn that through the artist, there is more of this world available to us. We want to spend more time in this world. Tanabe’s Sea is vast.