Frank Lloyd Wright said that every material has its own meaning or message and different materials can either have severe communication limitations or extreme communication possibilities as media. Yoshihito Kawase presents water as a medium possessing protean and flowing aspects of language in his recent paintings at Ronin Gallery on the Upper East Side. What gives water such potency as a language is that it shifts from representation to abstraction through disturbance. An abstract artist can deliberately push us out of our comfort zone of recognizable images and narratives and challenge us to dig deeper and engage the visual differently, as a referent to our inner reality and stimulus to recognize more of what happens inside of us; and this is not always a comfortable process. Undulating waves of water which ruin the representational by creating abstract patterns are often moments of distress in nature as well as emotionally for us as viewers.

Water begins as the medium which catches and carries light and images accurately, but reversed, just as images arrive in our brain before we flip them over. Water first tells us that the world is a beautiful lie – by reversing the image it forces us to acknowledge that we do not interact with the world but with sensations. When water becomes disturbed, however, it indicates the need to engage reality beyond no longer recognizable sensation – reality being everything inside of ourselves: our cognitive biases, memory flaws, desires, emotions, motives… all of the messy inner conflicts we need to discern to develop. Disturbed water also reflects the pain and suffering which the beautiful lie of sensations can physically inflict on us.

Kawase decided to take a closer look at water after the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster that became a type of Lisbon earthquake for our current generation. In 1755 an earthquake and tsunami destroyed Lisbon, Portugal on All Saints Day, killing 30,000 innocent people and causing folks to openly ask how a benevolent Christian God could allow this. The deaths in Japan become even more sinister than Lisbon because they did not shatter our confidence in God, but in governmental, engineering and technological systems, which we seem to feel are stronger and more reliable than God. The folks who say they can protect us if we give them power perhaps cannot protect us. In 2011 we learned that corruption and inefficiency can be a type of reality beyond the pleasant façade of economic development and social stability.

They had a safety wall around Fukushima, but it was nowhere high enough to stop the waves of that tsunami. There was no adequate backup electrical system, so the plant could not even be shut down, lacking electrical power. There was a nuclear disaster in part because guys could not shut the plant down. They even tried bringing in a car battery to get the system to work. People just sat and watched on TV as a nuclear disaster unfolded while engineers, scientists and politicians seemed helpless. A nation admired for its efficiency and development could do nothing as thousands of innocent people, who trusted their leaders and their technology, died horrible deaths. Indeed, the ripples Kawase paints might even evoke memories of the tsunami waves being followed and broadcast by Japanese news helicopters. We think we are safe, but sometimes all we can do is watch the video from helicopters as disaster becomes more and more immanent. This becomes a foreshadowing, perhaps, for more to come now that the effects of global warming have become manifest and as we can expect more and more environmental disasters in our societies.

So to me Kawase’s paintings can represent a tranquil transitioning from the representational to the abstract, from the outer to inner world and the corresponding serenity that can result from such reflections, as well as the more menacing aspects of the flow of water. He captures water in its dual aspects not only as a language but also as a material essential to our personal and social survival. Ronin points out that Kawase is motivated by the concept of yohaku, which can be thought of as “an anxious presence, an ever-present atmosphere”.

Kawase is, in fact, the 2019 winner of the Ronin/Globus Artist-in-Residence competition and will have his work featured in July and August as part of Ronin’s Contemporary Talents of Japan show. The theme of the competition was ryusui, the Japanese term that reflects water’s capacity to freely flow. He will get a three-week residency at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden as well as a month at Globus Washitsu, a venue created by brothers from the Globus family to further interest in Japanese culture in the USA. The theme also ties in to Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Water Conservation Project which connects water systems throughout the facility providing fresh water habitats for migrating birds and flora as well as helping to save about 21 million gallons of water a year lessening runoff during storms.