Robert Ogata with 'Haiku 10.' Photo by Maureen Davidson
The eloquent simplicity of Robert Katsusuke Ogata’s recent paintings is a state achieved only after a lifetime of exploration. Ogata traveled many roads as an artist to get here—here, where an ambiguous gesture in black chalk on white canvas speaks volumes and draws the viewer closer, all the better to dive into the warm, sensuous emptiness of a pond of luminous white, but also pushes the viewer back for perspective and a view of the whole vision.
In the five large paintings from his 2010 Haiku series at Chandler Fine Art in the art alley of San Francisco’s Minna Street, Ogata synthesizes a multifaceted career. He was a ceramic artist who studied both with the iconoclastic American artist Peter Voulkos and also with a traditional Japanese teacher considered a National Treasure. In his own work he used anagama kiln methods, embracing the exquisite accidents derived from long hot firings of unglazed pots. As a high school art teacher he influenced many young people in a long career. As a seminal figure in California’s Central Valley arts community, he exhibited widely and constantly.
Ogata forged an independent path: abstract and expressive but never really abstract expressionist, consistently exploring surface and often intimating a third dimension while painting only two. Born into a Japanese-American family, he never considered himself an “Asian painter;” he named as his major influence the land of the San Joaquin Valley. The Haiku paintings are, however, derived from a Japanese aesthetic.
The black calligraphic marks arise from his meditations beside a lily pond in his own garden. The dense black gestural marks trail long gritty shadows beneath them as if they’re islands viewed from space, frozen in the still, singular moment after a tectonic shift. These black tight chalk marks swim in a pool of deep sun-licked white: the tone of an egg’s inside. Thick, almost bulgingly opaque, the surfaces of most of the Haikus are matte, polished smooth. The artist was present when a friend and I dropped into the gallery unplanned after seeing the work through a window. He explained that this new black and white palette and the inspiration of haiku poetry seem appropriate to his stage of life. “Spring rain/everything just grows/more beautiful.’
The simplicity is, of course, deceptive. To achieve the grittiness of the shadow images beneath the dense black chalk marks, he coated the canvas to a very smooth finish with a commercial grade polymer, then sanded it even smoother. After he drew the calligraphic marks with black chalk, he pulled the powdery chalk dust downward, capturing the characteristic chalky grit, then covered the surface with varnish. Even the edges are finished so that nothing interrupts the illusion of depth.
Robert Ogata: The Haiku Series continues at Chandler Fine Art in San Francisco through Feb. 28. For more information see KUSP.org/exhibitionist.