Interview: Katsutoshi Yuasa, from photographic imagination to woodcut reality

Katsutoshi Yuasa is a Japanese artist who has revitalized the original idea of photography, thinking about its early techniques, and bringing the digital production close to ancient Japanese printmaking practices. His detailed and lengthy artistic process starts usually with a digital snapshot. Eventually the image finds a new life as woodcut print or relief work, which the artist carves and prints all by a hand. In this production the original alters into something else, depicting a feeling or experience. Katsutoshi Yuasa was born in Tokyo. He graduated from the Royal College of Art in London, and has exhibited internationally for over a decade now.

For Katsutoshi Yuasa, the photography contains several layers of meaning. The complexity of the medium implies that the production cannot be perceived as pure images.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Your woodcutting is based on photography, did this practice in your mind transform the idea of photography?

Katsutoshi Yuasa: Yes, my process of making art works is a way of thinking about an origin of photography. Or it is about image-making. How we understand and transform an image in front of our eyes to our mind.

I start from a photographic snapshot, but re-emergence of a photographic image is not my goal. My purpose of using a photograph is to make visible something which is perceived but no one sees.

Katsutoshi Yuasa, 2014, After a long pause  60cm x 150cm  Oil-based woodcut on paper
Katsutoshi Yuasa, 2014, After a long pause, 60cm x 150 cm, oil-based woodcut on paper.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: What is your background in the arts, how did you end up choosing woodcutting?

KY: I studied painting at first when I was a student. But I gave up my paintings because I couldn’t find a good future in my paintings. So I participated in a short printmaking course, and then found positive possibilities in the printmaking. Even that time my interest was photography, so I was thinking photo etching or screen print technique as my primary expression. At first, woodcut print seemed to be too far from photography. But later I concerned carving lines on wood as a similar process to making lights in the dark room. Now I’ve been making woodcut prints and works related to wood for over 10 years. Basically, woodcut print includes questions about light, image, water and colour.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: In how many countries have you exhibited so far, including art galleries and art fairs?

KY: Maybe about 15 or 16 countries.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Coming from Japan, do you find that there are common approaches to making art in Japanese and Nordic cultures, asking this also because your art has been showed in Nordic countries quite often?

KY: My main subject is woodcut print but it is about light, image, water and colour. So I made a project with an idea of these and created a concept from a place where I stayed. When I visited Norway with the art project “20 Coastal Stations”, my subject was water & colour. I’m going to have a exhibition in October 2016 with artists who traveled together in Norway last year (see info here  http://www.sfk.museum.no/nn/node/48).

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: You spent also some artist residence time in Finland, how was this experience like, did it change your artistry, how about finding new influences?

KY: I spend a really good time in Finland. During the artist residence in Finland, I searched Scandinavian myths and poems. I’m interested in how myths are made. I made woodcut prints titled as “Illmatar” and “The world without words”. Also “Listen, Nature is full of songs and truth” is a phrase that I borrowed from Finland.

Katsutoshi Yuasa, 2013, The world without words, water-based woodcut on paper
Katsutoshi Yuasa, 2013, The world without words, water-based woodcut on paper.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: It seems that many of your photographs carry nature imagery, what is your artistic philosophy about nature and how does it change in the process of making your works?

KY: I am not interested in making just beautiful pictures. My interest are words, stories and myths behind the nature and the landscape. The topics are words, images, art, nature, politics and beauty. I would also like to show and include ambivalence in my works.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: In recent years, you have made a series of works that imply thematic concerns about what is happening in the world. You did a series titled  “The Colors of the Innocents”; the theme is based on events in the Middle East adopting Syrian crisis. How did this project come about?

KY: Everyday we see many shocking images on TV or on a screen. There are too many images around us via the internet. I have the works titled as “We lost something but we don’t know what we lost”. And, we can say “We see anything but we don’t remember what we saw” and also “We know something is happening in the world but we don’t know the smell and temperature”. These topics are about cruelty and colour.

Katsutoshi Yuasa, 2015, The colours of the Innocents #4  60cm x 90.5cm  Water-based woodcut on paper
Katsutoshi Yuasa, 2015, The colours of the Innocents #4 60cm x 90.5cm. Water-based woodcut on paper.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: The result of these prints is quite amazing. Tell about the aesthetic choices of making “The Colors of the Innocents”? They are quite different from your other works, which are more representational.

KY: For these works, I was more interested in making colourful works because colour is getting more important in my practice. One colour work is following up from my CMYK printing system. So I made 4 wood blocks with different lines and printed with 4 CMYK colours.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: You can see that in 2015 there are new lines and shapes emerging, and result is perhaps more geometry and color. The prints titled All is Vanity, CMYCYMMCYMYCYCMYMC, and Nordlys, to name a few, have this form. Can you say that there is a fine line between design and art in the project that you are doing with these shapes?

KY: The most important idea for these works is “A Throw of the Dice Never Abolish Chance”. My interest is making an Image by a chance. Especially the I Ching is very interesting. There is a question that we choose something by a will or a chance. So my latest solo exhibition was titled as Colour/Numbers. How we choose numbers or how a number was chosen by us.

 

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Tell about the “Beyond assumption” exhibition, which you had in Copenhagen in 2011, you kind of wanted to create an oppositional imagery of disaster, could you tell about this background, and what did you choose to be part of the imagery beyond assumption?

Yes, the exhibition “Beyond assumption” is a word from the Natural disaster that hit in Japan in 2011. Artists want to make their art works beyond assumption in the end. And of course Nature is always beyond our assumption. But we made a system under an unstable base. So here art connects to nature.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: The works from 2016 also are experimenting with different shapes, reflecting pattern explorations, and bringing forth new influences. It seems that you have a flux of going between geometry and nature, to create and implement beauty?

Katsutoshi Yuasa, 2015, Observation point  95.5cm x 190cm  Oil-based woodcut on aluminum leaf paper
Katsutoshi Yuasa, 2015, Observation point 95.5cm x 190cm Oil-based woodcut on aluminum leaf paper.

KY: Yes, I’m very interested in geometry and patterns. It is about image-making. History and culture are included behind an image.

Katsutoshi Yuasa, 2016, Aesthetics of 12 #1  28cm x 45cm  Oil-based woodcut on paper
Katsutoshi Yuasa, 2016 Aesthetics of 12 #1 28cm x 45 cm, oil-based woodcut on paper.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Where are you heading next with your art and career?

KY: My next exhibition will be in Norway in October. It includes works from 20 Coastal Stations project. So 6 artists will be showing together, presenting the project. Also, I will have a group exhibition with young Japanese artists, who make water-based woodcut prints, in Melbourne in October.

Artist website: http://www.katsutoshiyuasa.com/

Camilla Vuorenmaa carves wood into paintings

Camilla Vuorenmaa is a young visual artist focusing on the human experience and the everyday encountering between people. She creates portraits with full of affect that stem from an exceptional artistic medium. Her portraits appear on carved wood as vigorously painted characters. An award-winning Finnish artist had a recent museum exhibition at the EMMA – Espoo Museum of Modern Art in Finland.

The main motive in my works is the individual experience and a sort of portrait. Effort, success and experiences of failure, the dignity of everyday life, affection, frustration and the experience of innocence and pain are subjects I reflect in my works. Mainly I portray the figures as themselves, doing some kind of a activity or being in the middle of it. Fundamentally we are all alone with our personal experiences. -Camilla Vuorenmaa

 

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: How did you find your recent artistic medium, is it common that an artist combines woodcarving and painting together?

Camilla Vuorenmaa: I started to work with wood year 2010, when I had the first opportunity to work as a full time artist for longer period of time. I had wood on my mind already before, but then I knew it was time to start with this material. My work has though always been moving between 2 and 3 dimensional form. I have felt the need to add mass and structure to my paintings, for example continue it with foam rubber stuffed canvas, or continue painting to the wall, over its material form.

Using wood in sculpture and even painting on the wooden sculpture is quite common. But this combination, painting and carving on wood boards is not yet very common. My working method is actually closer to the graphic boards that graphic artists make as a basis for their prints. Difference is, that I use that basis as the art piece itself, instead of making prints out of it. I call them paintings; others might call them something else.

As an artist do you feel that you can associate with both design practices and with the fine art history?

Camilla Vuorenmaa: Hard to say. I guess the things you grow up with, see and smell, forms, colors, light and shadow, basically everything has an effect on the visual idea. I am sure that Finnish design and especially its patterns have had influence on my visual choices. It is more unconscious than relevant though.

Your recent exhibition at the EMMA – Espoo Museum of Modern Art, was about people working by the sea. Could you tell more about this project?

CV: I applied to the SIM residency in Reykjavik on the winter 2014. I got the residency time to the September and October 2015 and it was perfect timing, since this project was on my mind before I knew about the prize and following exhibition at EMMA. All together, I had only nine moths to prepare EMMA exhibition, so it was good to have this idea already burning on my mind. I wanted to investigate the basis of the culture in Iceland, which is fishing. Everything in that country has basis on their fishing culture, so very simply, my aim was to go with the fishermen to the sea for some period of time, observe their working habits as an isolated community, atmosphere at the boat and individuals’ relation to the sea. I got connected to the MSC-Marine Stewardship Council representative Gisli Gislason in Iceland, and he told me a lot about the history of the fishing industry and helped me to connect with the Helga Maria ship’s crew. I went to the Atlantic Ocean with Helga Maria ship for one week on September 2016. During that time I photographed their working and used later these photos as basis of my paintings. The ship left from Reykjavik and went up until the northeast Iceland sea area. And returned. Gladly, weather was good most of the time.

 

What was your experience in working with EMMA museum; did you work particularly with a curator to build the show?

CV: Making an exhibition is usually a lonely work, but bigger shows definitely involve more people and more things to be taken care for. For EMMA exhibition I was closely working with curator Tiina Penttilä from EMMA. She came to visit me at my studio and also interviewed me for the catalogue several times during the making of the exhibition. I felt I got well supported by Tiina Penttilä and the whole museum crew during the making and building process. As an exhibition space, EMMA is wonderful and gives many possibilities to an artist. Especially I enjoyed making the wall paintings to the space. This was great experience as a whole.

Where does your artistic process start, from the idea of a canvas, or from the wood?

CV: Everything comes side by side, simultaneously. I choose material same time as I collect ideas. I take photos of something that interests me, like for example wrestlers. I made series of paintings based on the observation of the movement of one wrestling team in Helsinki. I do not really make sketches on paper; I see my photos as my sketches. I buy material, print photos that inspire me and spread them around the studio. Then I start to combine different sized wood panels and paint the beginning of the piece on the boards. I paint and carve, paint and carve until it is ready.

Wood has been my main working material for the past six years, but now I start to feel working again also with other materials.

You have worked with mixed media, how did you develop the techniques in each period of time, can you speak of artistic growth, or is it more like a seasonal thing?

CV: I guess all the developments on my techniques have had to do with the search of some kind of layer in between a painting. Painting on canvas, plexi glass, paper, mdf-boards, wood, wall, all these have circulated in my work. I can return to a technique I tried and worked with several years later and proceed with it further. I see working as a visual artist also some kind of work of an inventor, chemist, and alchemist. All the material details and accidents with them lead in to interesting paths and can start even a new process.

Camilla Vuorenmaa, Fisherman, 2015, painting (carving on wood), 200x120x2cm, EMMA -Espoo Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Ari Karttunen/EMMA 

What are you inspirations for creating your art, does it usually start with observations or fieldwork?

I used to collect inspirational pictures from old magazines. I spend hours and hours in old bookshops and went through dusty old magazines and photography books. The nostalgia and history inspires me, and also the idea that everything that happens in the world has already happened many times, they just appear in more modern form from century to century. Also my love to literature and books as objects has something to do with it. For the past years I have also started to use more my own photography as a basis of my paintings. I have become maybe more brave to confront the subject, or my curiosity has gone over my shyness.

 

How would you describe the education in Finland, much did you learn from your art education?

CV: My times in Finnish Art Academy were great. My teachers gave me a lot of freedom and opportunity to try everything. I was on the painting department but visited other departments regularly to try their material and working methods. For some, this kind of working freedom might have been too much, but for me it worked perfect. And if I needed support or comments, I could get that from the courses or ask studio visits from the teachers.

Is there something particularly Finnish in your art making?

CV: Well, I guess wood is pretty Finnish material. As wood industry is still so big in our country. Also I have understood from my colleagues and collaborators in Sweden, Denmark, Iceland and England that Finnish painters seem to have something peculiar and wild in their visual language. This has been of course great to hear – what a compliment to Finnish painters.

Do people ever ask you about the nature of your practice in regards to your gender as a woman making art, and your subjects for art, does the gender play any role in your art making?

CV: Well, I wish I could answer that “no – I have never have heard any questions that have something to do with my art making and being a woman”. But of course I have. Many people still seem to wonder how a small woman like me can handle big wood blocks, or do so big sized works. Once I even heard one man saying to me that your works are great, they look as if they are made by a man. I wonder what Louise Bourgeois must have heard! Good thing is that these comments are though not the first and the only thing I hear about my work and my working methods. Art is always political. So of course my art is too. I am more interested to hide my perspective of the roles of humans in my work, than comment it very straight in my work. But of course it is there. And I was the one who made these images.

What expectations do you have for the future, where do you see yourself going next?

CV: Now I am in the rare situation that I have exhibitions and plans made already until next year. Usually I have not known my ways for more than six moths. Interesting for me is to also see how this will affect on my artistic work, I have a possibility to plan and make long-term choices. My next big solo exhibition will be on January 2017 in Gallery Forum Box in Helsinki. After that I will take part to two group exhibitions in Sweden. I am more than exited and grateful for this situation. My aim has always been to make it possible to work as a visual artist without making compromises in the content. I follow that road.

Artist website:

http://camillavuorenmaa.com/