Embracing Imperfection: Contemporary Expressions of Wabi Sabi

Dual Opening Reception with Spotlight Gallery
January 21
5-6pm Members Only
6-8pm General Admission
Free for Members/$7 for NonMembers

Embracing Imperfection: Contemporary Expressions of Wabi Sabi is an exhibition that explores the practices of contemporary artists Adam Chapman, Jim Melchert, Leah Rosenberg, and Tokihiro Sato through the lens of the traditional Japanese aesthetic and philosophy of Wabi Sabi.

If you ask a Japanese person to define wabi sabi, he or she might slowly, silently shake their head or respond by saying, “It’s the Japanese heart” or “It’s in our soul.” Language is infamously limited in conveying what is best described as an aesthetic way of perceiving the world and, yet, words and their thought structures are all we have to try to discuss it with one another. Unless, of course, we are all steeped in the mindset of Zen Buddhism since wabi sabi and Zen are inextricably linked.

Zen, first introduced to Japan in the 12th century via China and originating in India, stresses direct, intuitive insight into the transcendental truth beyond all intellectual concepts. It’s stridently anti-rational and its essential knowledge over the years has been transmitted mind to mind, not through language. One of its key concepts is that things are either dissolving into or emerging from nothingness. In Zen terms, nothingness isn’t the Western notion of an empty void, but rather a place of infinitely creative potential. This vital continuum can be understood only through intuition and wabi sabi is the attitude through which intuition can be sparked.

Because a clear definition of wabi sabi is avoided, experience through sensory perception is the way to begin to grasp it. One of its material expressions is the tea ceremony (alternately chado, chanoyu, or sado), a highly stylized ritual that reveres simple, earthy, and, above all, authentic elements including the utensils used as well as the room’s environment and surrounding gardens.

In reading about wabi sabi, you’ll undoubtedly come across the name of Sen no Rikyū (1522-1591), a tea master with Zen training who was known for his use of simple implements, efficiency of movement, and paring down the ceremony to its essence, never to the point of austerity, but maintaining warmth. It’s very important for the participants to not be distracted, to feel at ease, and to establish an empathetic bond with the individual elements that contribute to the atmosphere of wabi sabi. Crucial to this aesthetic attitude is an appreciation of the passage of time—the physical example of the eternal continuum—especially as it’s seen in transient nature and in the imperfections of material objects. These can arouse a sense of empathy reminding us that we’re all in-process and that is, in effect, wabi sabi.

Qualities such as aging, awkwardness, asymmetry, roughness, and disrepair are all examples of unconventional signs denoting beauty—unconventional in the Western sense of classic beauty—and, yet, they’re highly valued as being representative of a profound awareness of one’s self in the world. Even when an object, like a teacup, is broken, it’s never discarded but rather pieced together with gold lacquer (a technique known as kintsugi or kintsukuroi) with the reparative line becoming part of that cup’s unique story—part of its flawed beauty—and a trace reminder of each body’s fragility.

An emphasis on process, an invitation to chance occurrences, and sensitivity to the impermanence of things (in Japanese, mono no aware) are all evident in the works included in Embracing Imperfection and underscore the inherent qualities of wabi sabi. In Adam Chapman’s The Starling Drawings (2008), a series of video drawings of starlings in their idiosyncratic flight patterns—called murmurations—move as one entity, concentrating in a black bulk of design and fluidly dispersing into yet another within seconds. How or why the birds take on these collective patterns is still a mystery to researchers, but their habit is a tangible reminder of life’s continuum. The artist says that he “seek[s] to capture the fleeting, euphoric moments when the mechanics of the world flash briefly into focus.”  Two other of his video drawing series, Diagram of Isolated Moments Forming a Memory (2008-09) and Diagram of Chance and Will Meeting (2011-12), begin as abstract elements—a variety of black lines and faint patches of muted colors—floating in and around each other, slowly resolving respectively into portraits of close friends and family and figure studies in ambiguous space. In constant motion, the faces and bodies gently pulse, their features separating into ephemerally abstract compositions that then recombine to reveal another face or pose. Watching the even pace of the repetitive transformations for a long enough time can lead to a lapse in running thoughts and a concentration on the present moment. It’s much like the reason that the traditional gestures in the tea ceremony were distilled for an efficiency of movement, codified, and performed in the same way for centuries: non-thinking repetition results in contemplative awareness of the ceremony, its components, and other participants.

The potential that the materials and process hold is forefront in Jim Melchert’s mind when he begins a new series of ceramic works. “I’ll have an idea of how I want to proceed,” says Melchert, “but as you go along things will happen that generally indicate a much richer vein to pursue than you started with. And I like that.” The artist is known for his unorthodox way of working with ceramic tiles that he buys prefabricated and breaks on a concrete floor after wrapping them in plastic. He then brushes the fragments with glaze or adds painted lines, sometimes using ink on parts of the unglazed surface. After firing, he meticulously reassembles the fragments by pairing up those pieces that “attract and activate” one another when juxtaposed. Within weeks, an entire field coalesces with the intentionally made cracks now an integral part of the work—intentional but not entirely random due to a structural phenomenon that causes the tiles to break apart only in those spots that have the weakest molecular bonds thus exposing hidden “fault lines.”

Melchert admits to a debt he owes John Cage (1912-1992) the experimental musician and philosopher who used all manner of chance events in composing his music like consulting the I Ching to determine the duration, pitch, and loudness of the notes. Like Cage, Melchert welcomes unpredictable outcomes as factors in his collaboration with the ceramics. In one of the two series shown, The Misfits (2011), you can see a grid of precise circles that serves as the background for the scattered stone-like shapes that the artist has superimposed along with the web of cracks that lends yet another dimension of complexity to the works. Despite their muted gray colors and faint shadows, each of the pieces in The Misfits shows a subdued power—a tension that resides in the lighter colored “stones” being surrounded by echoing black lines at their outer edges, having them appear to pop from the composition. No less powerful but wholly different in feel is Channel Series (2015-16) in which an expanse of white has been sparely interrupted by diagrammatic lines in bold colors reminiscent of a directionless map. Some of the lines cover the slender fissures—features to be treasured as in the kintsugi technique—while others nearby mimic their paths and interior shapes, each method bringing your eye’s attention to the incidental “accidents” that delight the artist and letting you see the traces of his mind’s intuition.

Leah Rosenberg’s Where Once Was None (2015) comprises remnants of a prior installation, Every Day a Color (2015), done while the artist was in a three-month residency program at Irving Street Projects in San Francisco. For the latter piece, Rosenberg painted the whole of a small storefront space—walls, floors, ceiling, chair, desk, and bottle—in one color each day, a color that was chosen from a particular object or scene that resonated with her while she was meandering through the neighborhood on her daily walks. The color could be that of a fence or car, a certain shade of the night sky or that of a stranded crab on the beach. She’d photograph her chromatic inspiration, match it with paint that she bought at the local hardware store, and then paint the entire studio space with it except for a painter’s tape width of the previous day’s color.  At the end of this fifty-day ritual—and after all the tape was removed—the final work consisted of a series of stripes that denoted a personal diary of Rosenberg’s experiences throughout the residency and was essentially a pared-down, highly subjective landscape of the neighborhood.

Where Once Was None—the installation seen here—was born by a chance realization during the de-installation of Every Day a Color: “As I began taking the masking from the ceiling away, the layers of paint started to peel away with it,” the artist explains. “I thought, oh how nice…I can keep this bit as a remnant. And then with my cake server, I kept peeling, realizing these layers were coming down in one piece. So, in the end, I had a cast of a space made with paint and now I needed to preserve them [sic] as a way of extending the life of a project while also the ghost of it.” In the framed works, you can see that the sheets of paint are thickly flexible enough to hold the shape of the room’s moldings and the small irregularities of the walls and ceiling on which the paint was originally applied, relief-like palimpsests of the once performative work. Being in close rapport with everyday colors and the way they “carry stories and memories,” Rosenberg creates an ephemeral path between internal experiences and external encounters.

Whereas Rosenberg records her ambling around town in diaristic fashion, photographer Tokihiro Sato uses light sources to indicate his progressive movements through space. His exquisitely produced black-and-white photographs, such as Hakkoda #8 (2009) from the Breathing Light series, picture woodland scenes with numerous orbs of radiating light that sometimes gather in sentient clusters and sometimes move from foreground to background within the composition.  Playful yet mysterious, the works are the result of a process that Sato began experimenting with in the early 1980s in which he set up his large-format camera and then moved around the scene being shot while holding a small mirror that reflects sunlight toward the camera, each step being held for ten-second intervals over an exposure time of up to three hours.  It’s a technique that captures the artist’s movement in space indicated by the tiny points of light within the setting, illuminated signs of his own absent image since any motion is too fast to be recorded in such long exposures. For interior or nighttime scenes, Sato will “draw” vertical lines—straight up and down or wavering and squiggly—using a penlight that he directs at the lens with, at times, nearly anthropomorphic effects.

Originally trained as a sculptor, Sato found that medium unsatisfying because it didn’t give him the dynamic relationship he was seeking between himself, his equipment, and his surroundings.  What’s maintained, however, is his sculptor’s sense of space to which he adds a temporal dimension that’s evident in the speckled radiance set within hundreds of highly detailed shades of gray. While in the forest, Sato has hinted about an empathy he feels with the pantheism of Shinto and the reverence this most ancient religion of Japan has for the natural world. Although it predates Zen Buddhism and its metaphysical merger with wabi sabi, Shinto’s belief in the animism of all things—inert and organic—provided a receptive atmosphere for both Zen and wabi sabi to take cultural root. The artist says that his inner attitude while working reflects “a direct connection between my breath and the act of tracing light,” a meditative feeling that harbors the visceral and cyclical bond with surroundings that’s at the heart of wabi sabi.

Recombinant motion of the abstract and the representational; the creative irregularities of happenstance; distilling a day into a color and a color into subjective experience; coaxing light to be a literal substitute for temporal space: Using vastly different materials and means, the four artists included in Embracing Imperfection all work in series, a point that highlights the regenerative process and fosters an active sense of time’s fluidity, the guiding principle of wabi sabi. Intuition, a kind of pre-consciousness held deep in the recesses of our minds, is their aesthetic agent, one that imbues their work with the characteristics of an unconventional beauty gently stirring your perceptions.

Text by Regina Coppola 

Public Programs

Tour with the Curator
Friday, January 27
Free with Museum admission

Learn about Wabi Sabi, Zen, traditional Japanese ceramics, and the artistic practices of Chapman, Melchert, Rosenberg, and Sato during a special tour with NVM’s curator, Meagan Doud. Tour is included in the price of admission.

Japanese Tea Ceremony & Lunch
Tuesday, February 7
Members Only
RSVP Required

Enjoy an exclusive, members only, excursion to the Sokiku Nakatani Tea Room and Garden at the University Library of California State University, Sacramento. Attendees will experience and participate in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony (Chadô). After the tea ceremony the group will enjoy conversation and lunch at a local Japanese restaurant. Tickets are $50 and include parking at Sac State, tea ceremony reservations, and lunch. Transportation will be arranged amongst the group to carpool. Limited to 25 guests. Cars will depart promptly from the Museum at 9am for a 10:30am tea reservation.

Tour with the Curator
Friday, February 24
Free with Museum admission

Learn about Wabi Sabi, Zen, traditional Japanese ceramics, and the artistic practices of Chapman, Melchert, Rosenberg, and Sato during a special tour with NVM’s curator, Meagan Doud. Tour is included in the price of admission.

Pay What You Wish Day
Free Family Fun activity at 2pm – Imperfect Pieces: Creating Tangrams
Saturday, March 11

The second Saturday of every month is Pay What You Wish Day! Visit the Museum with your family and join us for a Free Family Fun activity at 2pm. Channel artist James Melchert as we design our own artistic paper tangrams and explore contemporary expressions of Wabi Sabi. Start with a square, draw your own designs, then cut it up and rearrange it! Learn how to embrace imperfection through Chinese puzzle making and create your own works of art. We provide all the instructions and supplies.

Tour with the Curator
Wednesday, March 15
Free with Museum admission

Learn about Wabi Sabi, Zen, traditional Japanese ceramics, and the artistic practices of Chapman, Melchert, Rosenberg, and Sato during a special tour with NVM’s curator, Meagan Doud. Tour is included in the price of admission.

Pay What You Wish Day
Free Family Fun activity at 2pm – Let There Be Light: Revealing Nature’s Beauty
Saturday, April 8

The second Saturday of every month is Pay What You Wish Day! Visit the Museum with your family and join us for a Free Family Fun activity at 2pm. Learn about artist Tokihiro Sato and the photographic process by experimenting with light sensitive photo paper and natural shapes of leaves, rocks, flowers, and twigs. Think about how photos capture and record moments in time. We provide all the instructions and supplies, and you search our grounds for inspiration.


Yountville Art, Sip & Stroll
Saturday, April 22
$20 per tasting pass

Celebrate ARTS IN APRIL in YOUNTVILLE!  On Saturday, April 22 from 11AM-5PM we invite you to visit the beautiful Town of Yountville to celebrate the arts! Starting at the Napa Valley Museum where parking is plentiful, pick up your Art, Sip & Stroll wristband, visit the galleries, and enjoy your first tasting stop at the beer garden. Across the street enjoy the Lincoln Theater’s Grand Lobby where Chelsea Ritter-Soronen will be exhibiting her show Creases and begin your wine tasting experience. From there, board the Yountville Trolley to Washington Street where over 40 artists, 10 wineries & tasting rooms and live music await. New this year: Free parking & entry into the Napa Valley Museum, beer garden at the Napa Valley Museum, exhibit and wine at the Lincoln Theater, and a food truck round up at Van De Leur Park. Click ‘Buy Now’ above to learn more and purchase your $20 tasting wristband in advance. Art, Sip & Stroll is sponsored by Yountville Arts, The Town of Yountville, The Inns & Hotels of Yountville, The Napa Valley Museum and the Napa Valley Performing Arts Center at Lincoln Theater.