“Play is one of my central interests,” Emi Ozawa told me as we stood squarely in the middle of the large, ground-floor space of Richard Levy Gallery (514 Central Ave. SW), its picture windows perfectly framing the ambling foot traffic down Central Avenue. Shortly after making this statement, Ozawa proved her point by pulling a scrap piece of paper out of her brightly colored red folder and drawing four lines down the the center—one for each of us in the gallery that morning. She instructed me to pick a line, and then we each took turns making horizontal rungs between the four vertical lines, building haphazard ladders that provide the foundation for amidakuji, a common game of chance in Japan. “It's a really easy game, it's sort of a method of lottery to decide who gets what or who goes first,” she explained. We each tracked a path downward from the top, following the lines randomly chosen until we one by one dropped to the bottom on a specific path, where the paper was unfolded and one of the vertical lines was revealed to be first place, one second, third, and on. Just like that, we found our places by following the line.
Follow the Line is also the name of Ozawa's exhibition of large, wooden sculpture and smaller framed paper pieces that is currently bringing color and movement to the Downtown gallery space. Most of these works—some taking up floor space, but most of the pieces mounted (with custom hangers, crafted by Ozawa herself)—were made during a year-long tenure in Roswell, where Ozawa had access to a larger studio than in her home in Albuquerque. Given such space, the artist, who formerly worked a great deal with paper, and in small wooden pieces that are meant to be touched, decided to apply her vision on a broader scale than she had previously been able to. What has resulted are works that share the simple playfulness of amidakuji, and similarly enunciate the myriad beautiful possibilities that can be culled from simple geometric shapes.
One of the first pieces Ozawa and I paused in front of was very clearly a large, three-dimensional wood rendering of the game we had just played. Though now each line had a brilliant coating of paint that underscored its path downward. “I really liked to follow these rules, it gave me some ideas,” she said of her inspiration. “If I decided on six lines,” she said, gesturing to the six vertical lines on the piece before us, “I would try to do different spacing, and see where the horizontal lines come in and how many. And I made a lot of sketches and tried many colors, because I didn't know where the colors were going or how they were going to interact. I made many test amidakuji.”
What's created when these arbitrary paths are enunciated in color is something visually complex, and what's more, in each of these pieces negative space provides a foil to the constructed part, and the gallery lights generate shadow that creates its own complex imagery underlying each one. “I've always loved geometry,” Ozawa said. “Really, I start with squares, then add more squares, or divide squares. It's really interesting … to show what simple geometry can do.” She suggested that because everyone is familiar with squares and circles and the line, the wonder of each piece can be puzzled out as we examine and move around them.
Ozawa, who originally hails from Tokyo, also pointed to Japanese design and its emphasis on clean shapes and patterns as inspiration for her work. Tatami mats, shoji screens, origami paper—these objects make careful use of geometry and fill everyday lives with their simple, mathematical beauty. Of origami, Ozawa distilled the practice down poetically: “The end responsibility is just to fold and it is becoming something else.” Ozawa, too, in her own way, starts with these basic shapes—in her recent work, most often the square—manipulating them until they become visually interesting, full of color, light and motion.
From across the room, Ozawa pointed out her piece titled “Rain on Rain.” At a distance, the sculpture looked like a flat painting of blue and opal colored rectangles running straight down the plane of wood. Yet, even at a distance, I could see a jagged shadow created by the work, suggesting that it wasn't flat at all. As we moved closer, I discovered the texture of the piece—a series of very narrow, very square beams arranged vertically so that each sharp point faced outward. More surprisingly, I found that as I moved from one side to the other, the colors changed, the quality of the rain became heavier, dominated by deep blue. That so many of these pieces require that the viewer be in motion in order to understand them illustrates Ozawa's success in bringing playfulness into the gallery sphere—where there is often too little of it.
“I want to surprise [people],” Ozawa said. “So that when you first approach, there's one look, but when you take a step left or right, it changes. When you move, the look of the piece changes, actually inch by inch. I want people to enjoy that.” That process of discovery is joyful and often thrilling, allowing for visitors to easily, and compellingly, engage with the art.
I asked Ozawa—who studied woodworking and furniture making in order to support her sculptural craft—what attracted her to wood as a medium, even after she outlined the many cumbersome tools she needs to complete her work (handsaw, planer, joiner, sander, etc.). In answer, she described the sensations of playing with wooden toys washed in colorful paint during her childhood, their tactile charm and sturdiness. “Maybe that is why we make toys in wood, because it has this feel to it. Maybe that's where it started, touch.” That she reached for the example of playfulness once more only underscores Follow the Line's ability to return us to the joyful discovery of childhood, when tasked with the often thrilling undertaking of trying to—visually and intellectually—
Discover the beautiful shapes and patterns of Ozawa's work by dropping into the gallery Tuesday to Saturday, between 11am and 4pm, and attending the opening reception for Follow the Line on Saturday, Jan. 27, between 6 and 8pm. Visit Ozawa's portfolio anytime on line at emiozawa.com.