San Francisco

Sono Osato

As much objects as images, Sono Osato’s thickly impastoed canvases have the physical presence of sculpture. In this small, elegantly composed six-painting installation titled “The Sound of Ku,” careful consideration was given to the position of each work and its relationship to the others. From a distance, the viewer’s impression of the larger canvases is of austere, monochromatic monoliths: serious-looking Minimalist slabs of paint that lean against or, in places, out from the wall on wires. Even the smaller pieces have a weighty presence, in part a result of the buildup of paint, wax, and sometimes asphalt on each support.

As is often the case, however, first impressions are misleading. Up close, the surfaces of Osato’s paintings are rich with a wickedly heretical shimmer of light and color. In Sho, 1997, traces of cerulean blue underpainting show through thickly applied layers of olive and a dull verdigris green, giving the composition a surprising depth. The brown granulation of Go, 1999, glows with hints of bronze paint applied to the painting’s relief in such a way that it is almost necessary to kneel down and look up at the surface to fully see it. And in Ku, 1999, the funereal blue-black of its eight-by-five-and-a-half-foot expanse reveals itself, on closer examination, to be sprinkled with what looks like fairy dust. Specks of glitter interspersed with minuscule strokes of gold and red afford the same kind of secret, hedonistic thrill as do the tiny details in exquisitely tailored clothes. From a viewpoint close enough to see these traces, the painting’s vast, dark rectangle fills one’s gaze like complicated terrain from an aerial view. At the same time, the built-up surfaces here and in other works have a microscopically geological quality, suggesting tiny, delicate rock formations that have accumulated over centuries.

The key to these contradictory readings is found in Osato’s title for the exhibition. In Miyamoto Musashi’s Book of Five Rings, a seventeenth-century Japanese political manual roughly equivalent to Machiavelli’s Prince, the word ku is defined as the void itself. More specifically, ku is simultaneously emptiness and everything, far and near, in the same place. Zen Buddhists like Musashi, a legendary swordsman and strategist, are sometimes given a phrase or question, known as a koan, on which to meditate (the most famous example is probably “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”). Osato, who has been interested in the relation between visual and aural imagery for many years, seems to suggest that the sound of ku might be just that secret, unimaginable percussion: a kind of music that can only be perceived when a work is experienced and enjoyed both close up and from a distance. To hear this sound, she reminds us, we should try to understand a painting as a balance of physical object and abstract metaphor—and to remember, if possible, not to overintellectualize that understanding.

Maria Porges

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