Yusuke Asai

07 November 2014

Yusuke Asai: Yamatane
Rice University Art Gallery
2 October – 23 November 2014
by Kariann Fuqua

HOUSTON — Among university galleries and museums, Rice Gallery at Rice University in Houston, TX, has a unique mission — it only displays installation-based art. To kick off the gallery’s yearlong 20th Anniversary celebration, an exhibition entitled Yamatane by artist Yusuke Asai is currently on display.


For his first exhibition in the United States, Asai, who is from Japan, created a painting that covers three walls, 20 feet in height, as well as discrete sections on the floor. Upon entering the space through the glass walled entrance, the viewer is immediately enveloped into a mythical landscape of patterns, animals, and figures, a land that seems both familiar and foreign at the same time. The first thing one notices is a large pair of eyes in the middle of the piece, presumably representing the idea of Mother Nature or a deity of some kind, watching over all who enter. Emerging from the face are recognizable animals such as snakes and birds, intertwined with less defined creatures and other elements of nature: trees, flowers, and celestial beings. All these facets co-mingle with geometric patterns and shapes to create a mountainous land of rolling hills. The organic flowing nature of the piece symmetrically spills onto the floor to engage the viewer wholly. In the largest section painted on the floor, two hands beckon the viewer to come in and contemplate the balance of nature and its inhabitants.

Considering the current influences commonly seen in contemporary Asian art (anime, advertising, and pop-culture, among many others), Asai’s work remains outside of the mainstream trends. Yamatane, meaning mountain seed in Japanese, is reminiscent of work made in the traditions of Folk art, African art, and other indigenous cultures of long ago. Perhaps this is a reaction to growing up in an urban environment with very little access to nature in any form. Asai’s drawings and paintings are an outlet for creating his own fantastical natural worlds, doodling and experimenting with alternate materials to make them.

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The entire installation in Rice Gallery is made from a natural medium – dirt. In 2008, Asai began using dirt to create “earth paintings”. Each new installation begins with collecting dirt from the specific location and using it as paint. The soil around Houston, commonly referred to as “Texas Gumbo” is a clay-based, nutrient-rich medium that yielded the artist 27 different shades from which to work: “the widest spectrum of colors representing a specific place that I have ever used.” * The range of colors is quite remarkable considering its origins and includes various shades of reds, yellows, muted browns, and ochre, even a rare greenish grey. Students at Rice and other community volunteers collected samples from around Houston before the artist’s arrival. After grinding it with a mortal and pestle and sifting each sample to remove any extraneous debris, the final product is not unlike the look of pure ground pigments. Mixed only with water and applied directly on the wall or on a vinyl substrate on the floor, the installation was created over two weeks with the help of five assistants.

The ephemeral nature of his chosen medium plays an interesting role in relation to the subject matter. With one swipe of a damp sponge, this work can and will be eventually washed away. According to Asai, “when I erase the painting it is sad, but within the context of the natural world, everything is temporary.” His work in essence, is an exploration of themes of origin, growth, regeneration, and renewal – basically, the cycle of life, as we know it. As with most of Asai’s paintings, this installation’s natural life will end on November 23, 2014.

View exhibition brochure.

Images provided by Kariann Fuqua, 2014.
All quotations used are from the artist’s statement.