Jens Asthoff

Shadowy Colours, Tangible Light

Painting by Miwa Ogasawara


Is that light catching in a glass bowl? Or is it rather a kind of materialised glow that has become an object? In the paintings of the group of works Vessel, which Miwa Ogasawara has been working on since 2014, it is often only a thin line that separates the two impressions from one another. Or connects them: it is particularly the sharpened sense of painterly imponderability, with which the paintings balance out the impression of a glowing or also illuminated body, that makes them so fascinating. In our perception they are images of transition, representations that change when viewed: one moment we see the bowl flooded with light, in the next moment the glow of a self-contained substance with no source.


The phenomenon of light already held a special place in Ogasawara’s paintings, for example in the virtually abstract spatial scenarios such as Living (2010), but also in the newer works such as Spiegelung and Hallway (2014). With the current groups, for example Vessel and Neon (2013–), as well as individual paintings like Memories (2012), Station (2013) and Lichtspiegel (2013), the theme has become even more important in Ogasawara’s work and also appears more complex and in terms of the motifs often more concentrated.


In art history, light, both in a painterly and metaphorical sense, has been a crucial theme for centuries. Traditionally, it has been considered a spiritual metaphor, a metaphor of the mind – that which animates a lifeless world of things and embodies (self)knowledge. In Christian symbolism it represents the Holy Ghost and the resurrection. Furthermore, from a painterly perspective it is the decisive platicizing, space-creating part: by means of light and shadow only, painting can spark meditations that are both minimalist and universal – the still lifes by Giorgio Morandi (1890–1964) come to mind here or the portrayal of empty enfilades by Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864–1916).


In the case of Ogasawara, one can indeed attest to a comparable form of silent contemplation. However, her representation in the world of things is more strongly focused on the aspect of chiaroscuro and as such even more clearly oriented towards the theme of light. She has always used an extremely reduced range of hues: dominated by delicate shades of black and white, with the addition of mostly only very small amounts of colour. As a result, in effect the latter are often merely discernable rather than directly visible. For the artist the colouring does not serve primarily to give body, but has an atmospheric, space-creating function that aims to create light moods. Ogasawara hence uses light not so much symbolically, as Hammershøi does for example, but makes it a carrier of pure presence, a kind of fluid spirit of timelessness: spaces, objects, people seem to float in luminance here, occasionally dissolving in it or assimilating it. Despite all precision and stringency, Ogasawara’s painting is at the same time very atmospheric and even the strong black-and-white contrasts scarcely show any hard contours. Her pictures have been subjected to a subtle dramaturgy of light – and thereby clearly show a state of nunc stans: the self-contained now that presents things according to the way they appear, almost abundantly, while everything is connected to everything as if in a subtle transition. In these paintings, the world shows itself to be a continuum.


Ogasawara takes this up in a thematically concentrated and formally purist way in the group of works Vessel. One sees nothing more than a bowl on a surface. In terms of painting, here the light is modelled in it like a body – yet it still remains strangely intangible, as if it were a Fata Morgana or an apparition: it is a moment of transition, of overturning, which she dramatizes here in a conceivably minimal setting. In the process, the motif becomes a kind of visual resonating body, where one can scarcely make out if one is faced with abundance or emptiness. Formally, the individual works are somewhat different, sounding out the scope of the theme. Hence the focus and positioning of the bowls changes: sometimes the view is from slightly above, at other times more level. In Vessel 16 or Vessel 1 Ogasawara inserts a formal horizontal line into the upper third of the picture, portraying a table edge, which suggests a larger spatial foothold. In Vessel 3 and Vessel 13, for example, this is missing. Here, the painterly space is made up solely of the soft shadows cast over the surface by the milky-translucent bodies of light. In spite of the increased presence of the object, the motif paradoxically seems less tangible, as if it had slipped into a subtle state of uncertainty. The works are not variations on a series but rather they have the power of autonomous image conception. The key motif, in which the emptiness of form and the fullness of light interweave, finds its own presence in each painting.


In Neon, a group of works the artist has been producing since 2013, Miwa Ogasawara takes up this theme again in a different way: representations of individual neon tubes, hence in this case self-illuminating bodies, override the ambivalence of object and epiphany found in the Vessel works. Here it is very clear: one can see the artificial light reflected by the object. However, another form of ambivalence arises here: because to some extent – and not because of the thing in itself but rather the picture – the body here is also the light. Luminescence and the material foundation are seamlessly linked by the same radiance. Only the shadow gap created by the tube holder produces a linear minimum of spatial orientation. The picture itself, with all its artificial sobriety by no means offers this: what counts for the compositional setting is that here not a trace of a reference, be it a ceiling, a piece of door or a window, extend into view. Ogasawara does create spatial-perspective settings within the pictorial plane: in Neon 4 (2013) for example one looks out from below onto a single tube that crosses the upper third of the picture; in Neon 7 (2013) the top of the horizontally aligned light source is bordered by a small cover that casts a slim shadow. However, in both cases there are no independent space coordinates – except for the wall that merges optically into the background. Hence the room becomes free of context, withdrawing into the picture, a “picture-interior” that is separate from the position of the viewer. This is a cryptically vexing moment within this group of works. However this space is made up of nothing but linearly composed light, as a further characteristic: the radiating glow is the visual object but at the same time the condition of visibility that applies here. In Neon Ogasawara paints rooms that are quasi “stretched out” by the light alone and yet are only carried by it. One can try to envisage the same setting but with the switch turned off.


In addition to such focussed representations of light, in her work Ogasawara also continually explores different degrees of diffusion of the daylight flowing freely within the space. This is frequently structured in architectural settings in her paintings, however it is also often modulated in representations of more or less transparent curtain material, for example in Nachwinter (2013) or Timeframe (2010). The paintings Living, Awareness of Life or Vague from the years 2010 and 2011 are early examples of the artist’s preoccupation with the power of light to create space: one can see spacious perspectives with densely stacked, high windows. Nothing incidental, no furniture for example, detracts from the encounter between light and architectural structure. The gaze is directed straight into an indeterminate depth, daylight enters from the left – and becomes a protagonist on an empty stage: Living shows a room, built from staggered shadows and glittering reflexes – however its stringent clarity is toppled at second glance: in the right section of the picture there is a narrow view of an adjacent room – or is it a reflection? The spatial setting remains ambivalent; also in Awareness of Life, the exact pendant to Living. In this work, Ogasawara paints the same view into the same room, however this time as a night view. The light, again entering from the left, seems selective and cool and despite the subtleness of the representation somehow more compact. The light does not spread out like diffuse, scattered daylight but seems to emanate from a single source, probably a street lamp. Yet between all the black it is still noticeably present and here too it seems to have been given an atmospheric substance.


The three-dimensionality of the light, something Ogasawara has a continuous interest in as a theme and motif-based aspect, has been interpreted most recently in the large landscape formats Hallway, Gang (2014) and the small-format forerunners Gang 1 and 2 (both from 2014). The setting seems more simple, more strongly reduced. Light seems to hover in it, an immaterial continuum yet at the same time tangible like a fine layer of vapour: here it is the real, visible-invisible object that is depicted. The two works focus on the same space(type), however they look in opposite directions: an empty room with a continuous window façade that extends up to the ceiling, ending far away in a narrow strip of wall. As a vanishing point and a formal limitation, it is only just in the picture. A vaguely suggested window grate emphasises the vertical plane, while the transparent, lamella-like blinds that cover part of the windows are also indicated. In this way, Ogasawara allows a spatially complex mix of light to emerge. In Gang she adds a couple of dim figures of reference. They appear pale and intangible, as if shrouded in the gentle, space-filling materiality of the light.


A further group of works, mostly in a smaller format, consists of studies of (almost always female) figures, detail-like representations of individual body parts: this is also a theme that has accompanied Ogasawara’s oeuvre from the very beginning. This includes early paintings such as Haut/Bauch (2008) or Haut/Schenkel (2006). Skin, a group of works from 2014, is the most recent example of this preoccupation. Again and again the painter focuses her gaze on the body as a sensitive surface. In Skin 7, for example, one sees the study of a back, while Skin 1 shows a view of a hip, a bent lower arm and an elbow. The real theme of the work is the representation of skin, while aspects such as beauty and vulnerability are also implicit. However, this view is also always based on a specific lighting dramaturgy and hence these pictures are also expert studies, in which the skin is captured as a shimmer of ethereal light dispersion: the vulnerable beauty of the body, presented as a subtle intertwining of tangibility and shadowy colours. 


However there is also a darker side to Ogasawara’s work – one that dates more recently: the works of the small group Saigai (2011) are extensive, rather gloomy and chaotic looking landscape prospectuses. Here, one not only involuntarily leaves the sphere of human living and what directly surrounds it, which most other paintings by Ogasawara tell about. The (outer) world shown here, really does appear to be troubled and barren: no people, no trace of civilisation, even intact nature cannot be found here. A horizon, the sky and the earth, colourless. Aside from this, in the paintings everything seemingly moves towards the dissolution of order. The wide expansiveness pressed into a small format increases the impression of intangible trepidation. Together with the rough brushstroke, a fast compositional structure that is a direct result of the painting process, and a frequently uneven, harsh interlocking of black and white, gives Ogasawara’s work an impulsive expressiveness as well as space to her painterly dynamic. In the process, everything visible remains consciously implied and the free forces of painting dominate what is happening in the picture. Saigai 3 (2011), for example, could at first glance be interpreted as morning mist in a woody valley, a well-nigh romantic cliché. However the sombreness, a certain amount of abrasiveness in the style of painting and the growing impression that the theme might be one of ruins, causes the viewer to hesitate for a moment. This can similarly be seen in Saigai 4 (2011), a picture in which every contour of the concrete things has been blurred, dissolving in the soft streaks of the paintbrush and a greyish-black cloud rising up above the horizon. An impressive natural spectacle? Unlikely. Although it is not clear what is happening, the threatening ambience of the painting is all the more clearer, all the more unquestionable.


The title, ‘Saigai’ in Japanese, means catastrophe and indeed Ogasawara is experimenting here with the portrayal of a real occurrence, which stands for a form of dissolution of the natural order of things: nuclear meltdown and radioactive contamination. The catastrophe that this painting deals with is the disaster of the reactor in Fukushima, which, following a tsunami in March 2011, though in fact due to human hubris, broke over Japan. “The incidents in Fukushima have changed my view of the world”, says Miwa Ogasawara, who grew up in Japan and now lives in Germany. “The influence on my painting was inevitable”. Maybe it is only possible to capture such an incomprehensible catastrophe, which at the end of the day is impossible to depict, in such a gestural-improvisational and hence also inevitably subjective painterly process? Which everything diffuse and alarming enters and then spreads out? It is a very conscious and also humble attempt to visualise it – spurred on by the knowledge that it at best touches on emptiness.