British artist Rebecca Salter is best known for work which gives us a fresh perspective on the traditional Japanese aesthetic. Her new retrospective opening at the Yale Center for British Art, “into the light of things,” presents about 150 works of hers from 1981 until the present. In the heart of the museum, surrounded by her soft and meticulously detailed paintings, WEEKEND spoke to Salter about her influences, her work and how she hopes visitors will experience her art.
Q: What first drew you to Japan?
A: I’d always liked Japanese prints and the kind of Japanese aesthetic. I was in school there for two years and then stayed for six more. But at the time, it was 1979; it was like going to the moon. It was so far away, so expensive.
Q: What was your first exposure to Japanese art?
A: Japanese prints. When I was in my teens [I saw them] in reproductions and I just thought they were very interesting — the sort of flat color, the simplified lines, the flat aesthetic. And when I was in art school, I wrote my graduation thesis on the scrolls of Genji. What’s really interesting about that, compared with a Western book where you just open the book and you’ve got instant access and you can see any part of it at any time, the thing about a scroll is that it’s very carefully controlled and they know that you will open it this much, and see this much. So the artist has got tremendous control over how you will appreciate and understand the story. And so it’s got a spatial element, as well as a time element. So I found that very interesting, conceptually, and artistically.
Also, the perspective is really interesting. Obviously with Western art, we always have that central vanishing point perspective, where the viewer is kind of the king and you look right into the heart of the painting. But in Oriental art, the perspective is completely different. Landscape is piled up in the picture plane, with the furthest away being at the top. Everything is flattened out. And in these scrolls, the perspective is as if you’ve taken the roof off a building, like a doll’s house, and you’re looking in. I was very taken by that, very inspired.
Q: What was your art like before you went to Japan?
A: Well, I did ceramics and the man who taught me in England had a love for Japan and China, so I learnt from him the very fine elegant, ceramics of the Far East. My ceramics were more like paintings on clay. They were very, very thin sheets — a quarter of an inch thick — and then I painted on them, with glaze. And then I would fire them in the kiln. But the problem was, because they were so thin and so delicate, they’d break. It was just very difficult. And so I stopped doing ceramics and I moved on to paper. Which is where this show starts.
I started with taking the sort of material quality of ceramics and transferred that to [Japanese] paper. I painted on both sides of the paper. Most of the paint is on the back though. There’s a strange distance, because you’re actually looking through the paper. The striations on the piece are made by tearing. What I try to do is keep the line alive. The more you draw, the more skilled you become at drawing. The line becomes almost dead, because you’re too skilled at it. So the aim is to always introduce a little bit of uncertainty. Spontaneity, so that the line stays alive. I’ll sometimes use my left hand instead of my right hand. I actually did a whole series of drawings with my feet. Anything to, you know, keep the line lively.
Q: Japanese art is very much about tradition. How do modern day artists and your work revise and use that tradition?
A: Well, the art school there, it was very interesting, it had two departments of painting. There was a Western department, where you used perspective and oil paint. And a Japanese department, where you used water-based pigment and paper and the flattened perspective. And they didn’t see that the two activities were the same.
Q: I noticed that you were also recently involved with architecture.
A: Yes, I was asked to be the artist working with the architects in redesigning the main entrance for one of the big hospitals in London. The entrance was very unwelcoming, stressful and confusing. So I worked with the architects to build the art into the walls. I used some of my knowledge of Japanese temples and gardens. Particularly, what’s interesting about gardens is how you navigate the space. It’s not about arrows and signs. You navigate kind of instinctively based on the placement of rocks and trees and change of texture. I wanted to try to bring that kind of navigation into the hospital setting. I wanted to use sustainable materials, so I used bamboo paneling and recycled glass with light behind it. It’s a 60-foot-long corridor. There’s lighting from the outside. People can follow the light through the space and then they’re in the hospital. They’re not stressed.
Q: Had you ever done any work with architecture before?
A: Not really, but I was asked to do a painting for the hospital, because people say my work is very calming. So I said, “Rather than a painting, maybe I’ll just work with you on the space.”
Q: Was it daunting?
A: I think if I’d been younger it would have been. A lot of what I think about is space — pictorial space — and how you can create a place for people to live in within a painting. Doing an architectural project just felt natural.
Q: I was wondering if we could talk about another medium you use — woodblock prints. How does it work?
A: It’s very low-tech. Say you want a four-color work. You have four carved blocks, one for each color. And you just place the paper on one at a time, press it, print each color, right on top of each other. And you have a print.
Q: What do you think the difference is between that and just painting directly on the paper?
A: The interesting thing about printmaking is that there’s that one thing between you and the materials. Because when you’re working directly on the paper or canvas, you’re in total control. When you’re working with printmaking, you know you put the ink on, [but] you never know quite what is going to happen.
Q: You’ve shown your work here and in London, as well as in Japan. Do you think the reaction to your work differs depending on where you show it?
A: Yes, it does. In Japan, people would say, “Oh isn’t that strange. Your work is very Japanese.” And I mean, there are elements in the work you could say are very Japanese: the very soft color, the muted sort of shades. I’m very interested in texture and the surface, which is quite Japanese. I mean, if you think about Western painting, the canvas has got a primer on it so the surface is completely sealed. You put oil paint on it, and though it sticks there, it never goes completely through. They’re separate. But because all traditional Japanese materials are soft and very absorbent, the color goes into the paper and they become one. So it’s less like a surface and more like an object. I think it’s a fundamentally different way of thinking about painting.
Q: Your exhibit is entitled “into the light of things” — can you tell me a little about that?
A: It’s a quote from a Wordsworth poem. He’s really talking about nature and what you can learn from nature. That’s why we chose it. I mean, we felt that essentially the exhibition is a journey. It’s chronological. Places I’ve been [and the] journeys I’ve made have had a big influence on me. So we kept getting the feeling of going into something. You know, this movement. With the paintings, instead of sitting back from them, I feel you can be drawn into them. Almost as if you’re being drawn toward a bright light.
Q: That’s interesting, because we were talking before about linear perspective and how it also draws the viewer in. This is very different, though.
A: Yeah — linear perspective. It’s really fixed. As if there’s one way into the painting. But because of the obliqueness of this work, there are a million ways in and you have to find your own way in. So that’s why we wanted a title that would just give a hint that it’s a place for reflection.
Q: Your work does have this very meditative quality. If you were to pick an ideal museumgoer to view your work, would you hope that they could see all your works, or sort of sit in front of one and contemplate it?
A: I think any of the curators will tell you that the average time in front of a painting is something like four seconds. It’s really difficult to get people to look. It’s even more difficult now when everything is getting faster and people are less prepared to just sort of sit and wait for something to happen.
There’s a relationship between how long it takes me to make a work, which is quite a long time because they’re very dense and labor-intensive, and how long it takes for people to see everything I’ve hidden in them. So there are people who own my paintings and say “You know, I’ve had this painting for 15 years and I see something new in [it] every day.”
For example, this painting behind you, the first layer of that painting was a very deep red, a bright red. And I’ve layered and layered and layered paler colors on top of it, so that the red has nearly disappeared. But if you sit in front of that, and your eye muscles relax and you sort of drift off, it’s as if the color comes glowing through it. But you have to give it the time.