Abstract Art and a Rusty Mirror

Last year I bought a book called “Katachi - Classic Japanese Design” by Takemoto Iwamiya and Kasuga Takaoka. It was an impulse buy. Probably late at night when I was feeling uninspired. It arrived and I must admit I was a bit disappointed. It was a thick book of photos, but all the photos were black and white, and mostly flat lays. Visually blah. Not at all inspiring. The objects photographed were amazing, but the execution of the book didn’t live up to the incredible topic it covered. Despite my lack of enthusiasm I did read the Forward by Mutsuo Takahashi.

That short introduction was an epiphany. It was worth the price of the entire book.

In it, Takahashi-San describes a Shinto worship hall that contains a mirror made of metal. Metal that rusts. The reflections in the mirror are blurry. He states “That mirror is Japan, a culture that absorbs the light of external objects and ideas and reflects back a changed image, an image transformed. The originals are assimilated through the looking glass of Japan, stripped to their essence, and mirrored in forms that epitomize their intrinsic nature - in material, in function, and in force - as they relate to their new context.”

This statement blew me away. Not in the context of Japanese art and design...but in my attitude and perception of my own art. I decided that very second that as an artist I wanted to be a rusty mirror. I wanted to actively engage in absorbing my environment and reflecting back a changed image.

Now, to be honest, that is what all artists do. Every work is the result of internalizing outside inspiration and materializing the result as art. Seems obvious. But at that moment, when reading, it was the first time I became consciously aware of that part of the process. That it could be an intentional practice. Instead of waiting for inspiration to hit, I could proactively look at anything and filter it through my own artistic vision. That was profound to me at that moment. My mind started racing around ways Japan had taken inspiration from around the world and developed things so very Japanese that they have helped define Japanese culture to the world: manga, J-Pop, anime, sandwiches (if you have not seen what Japan has done to sandwiches YouTube will be amazed), manhole covers (again, YouTube it), trains....the list goes on.

I realize that what I’m describing is the entire abstract movement of art. Every abstract artist does this. Yet, for some reason, seeing it in print, in black and white on that page, was the first time it ‘clicked’ in my brain that I could do this at will. Intentionally. That I did not have to passively wait for some creative spark to fire in my brain and push me to go create.

Perhaps this is formal art education 101 and I’m late to the party. But if this was the lesson art instructors in the classes I’ve taken were trying to teach I failed to grasp it. They all talked about learning to ‘see’, but I don’t remember any of them ever talking about what to do with what you ‘saw’. We spent time on perspective, and light, and space, and composition...but never interpretation. There was never any discussion about how to develop the perception needed to filter things through my own artistic vision. Takahashi-San, in one sentence, made me realize that what we see isn’t as important as how we turn the vision into something uniquely our own. We have to look at everything through a rusty mirror.