Atsuko Chirikjian: Unexpected happening
Atsuko Chirikjian was born in Tokyo, Japan and graduated from Tama Art University with BFA and MFA degrees. After she moved to the United States in 1990, she attended the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan and graduated with an MFA in Fiber.
As an artist with a fiber background, she sees a stretched canvas not just as a surface on which to paint, but as a three-dimensional construct. Her intention through her work is to call viewers’ attention to the underlying background material and structure while questioning the usage of ready -made canvases. She builds her own canvas to emphasize this inquiry through the layering of different materials like thread, wire, net, bamboo, twigs, and cheesecloth.
Her works have been shown in national and international exhibitions. Recently she showed at Brooklyn, NY, Philadelphia, PA, St.Louis, MO and Belgium. She was a semi-finalist in the Japan Craft Competition (Matsuya Ginza, Tokyo) in 1990, an honorable mention in Fiber Options (Circle Gallery, Annapolis, MD) in 2014, and most recently, she was a semi-finalist for The Trawick Prize (Washington DC) in 2016.
In this interview, we learn why Atsuko uses thread to construct space, who her major influences are and, by just letting things happen, how she creates her intricate and beguiling artwork.
TextileArtist.org: What initially attracted you to textiles as a medium?
Atsuko Chirikjian: What fascinated me about textiles was the construction of warp and weft including the negative space in between. It seemed like a micro-architectural interplay of spaces. I was thrilled by the art form created by the accumulation of lines and the three-dimensional structure of textiles.
And, more specifically, how was your imagination captured by thread?
Thread or any kind of fiber material can be compared to the sketch lines of drawing for me. Every shape starts from a minimal unit-a line, a thread. Thread is an interesting element which changes its form by tension, thickness, and materials. I see thread as a piece of space which has the enormous potential to grow into a performative piece of art.
Who were your early influences and how has your life influenced your work?
I was very lucky to be a student of Gerhardt Knodel at Cranbrook Academy of Art. He was not only a distinguished artist himself but also a charismatic teacher. He pulled out each student’s potential and stretched it to the limit. Being his student was not easy. I cried several times during the Cranbrook era, but I am who I am now because of him. Many famous fiber artists, like Nick Cave and Anne Wilson, were born under him. Also, what I appreciate about him now upon looking back, is that he gave me rare opportunities to meet amazing artists while I was his student.
I had a lunch with Ann Hamilton and we visited so many artists’ studio in New York, including Lenore Tawney, Ursula Von Rydingsvard, and Judy Pfaff. He introduced us to Richard Martin at the Metropolitan Museum and he took us to Jack Lenor Larsen’s lecture. Those memories are still precious to me. Meeting these people and observing their lives during my early stage as an artist has made a great impact on me.
What was your route to becoming an artist?
I was born in Tokyo, Japan. When I was one year old, we moved to the US and lived here for two years because my father taught at Washington University in St. Louis and Oberlin College. I grew up the rest of my life in Japan for twenty-four years.
I think my family was pretty westernized and unique. My mother’s side of the family was involved in theatre. My uncle was a playwright and my mother, aunts and cousins were all actresses. I grew up watching stage rehearsals and visiting actors backstage. My father’s side of the family were academics.
I needed to find my own path and it was art. Art was the only territory that I could claim for myself. Since I was young, I was never interested in outdoor activities and I liked to draw, paint and create things indoors. I believe that my family environment always has influenced my creative life in subconscious ways.
A sense of volume and depth
Tell us a bit about your chosen techniques.
I build thread on top of each other like building architectural forms.
I use thread to construct the space. Sometimes I stretch thread on the frame and harden it by glue, Sometimes I randomly sew thread on the space between the bars. I don’t know what to call this technique but what I do want to call is the viewers’ attention to the textile structure.
Sarah Doherty, a faculty member at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, explains in a curatorial statement of the School 33 Biennial Show.
In the work of Atsuko Chirikjian, there is a literal tension found in the point of division between positive and negative space as she reveals the canvas as a sculpture’s construction. The warp and weft build a three-dimensional space within her pieces, with each fiber increasing or decreasing in size as they create a sense of volume and depth.
How would you describe your work and where do you think it fits within the sphere of contemporary art?
Fiber Art became popular in the Japanese art scene toward the end of the 80’s. I remember that one of the famous art critics in Japan said,
Fiber Art is Fiber Art after all. No matter how much they try to make a movement in art history, it is like a storm in a cup.
What he wanted to say was Fiber Art is not Art. I have been confronting this issue all the time since those days. When you say Fiber or Textile, people think we are weaving a carpet or knitting a scarf but we do more than that. In art history, Naum Gabo, Marcel Duchamp, or Eva Hess used thread in constructing aesthetic form. Aren’t they Fiber Artists too?
When I took a course on the history of modern art, I was interested in time and space in the context of modern paintings. Meanwhile, I was weaving every day and wondering why painters didn’t get bothered by the material of canvas which holds temporal sequences within it.
In my work, I try to deconstruct canvas to break those time sequences. I build thread from back to front so it accumulates like layers of painting. Lucio Fontana cut a slit a half decade ago and Dianna Molzan is recomposing canvas these days and I would like to treat a canvas from a fiber artist’s point of view.
Tell us about your process from conception to conclusion.
I start from a basic concept and idea. The outcome has to go through a long process of experimentation and purpose from there. Since my work is three dimensional and uses different materials, I can not just think in my head and draw on a paper. I need to actually use my hand and play with the materials.
While I am doing it, there is another discovery or unexpected happening which makes the final body of work interesting. The core concept is always there in my head, but I do not want to control the happening part too much during the process of making
The craftsmanship of artists
What environment do you like to work in?
I used to listen to music in my studio, but recently I listen to artist’s talk or interviews on the internet. When I am in a studio alone, I feel isolated and lonely, but when I listen to the stories of those people, who are not only artists but also architects, designers or musicians, they accompany me in my studio. I can learn so many things from them and feel encouraged by their stories while I am working alone.
Which exhibition inspired you recently?
I was impressed by WONDER at the Smithsonian Renwick Gallery in Washington DC. The exhibition simply provided the visual power of the materials constructed by human labor. Those natural materials spoke loud to me even while we’re living in the high technology era. I respect the craftsmanship of the artists. It gave me hope.
Who have you been influenced by and why?
As a body of work, I was influenced by the artists of the Arte Povera movement, Eva Hess, and Anselm Kiefer. They all dealt with their materials supported by their strong concept. It was experimental and radical at that time, but it is still fresh and surprising to me after a decade.
As the way of living, I was influenced by Zaha Hadid. She got through the barrier of gender, race and rejections. I still wonder how she kept her strength through her life. I simply admire her.
How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?
When I was in graduate school, I was doing installations. I have been focusing on Canvas Series recently but I am thinking about going back to installations, which use stain again and I am excited about it.
Where can readers see your work?
My works are featured on Field Projects Gallery Blog, May 2016 issue online right now.
Also, I am going to have a solo show in Gallery CA in Baltimore next year.
For more information visit: www.atsukoart.com
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