The Quiet Urgency of Barbara Takenaga’s Paintings

Barbara Takenaga has always been a restless artist. Since the early 2000s, she has slowly but continually expanded her process and vocabulary, which has included pouring, chance, pattern, repetition, spheres, and linear marks. In the work of the past two years, however, she has made a major breakthrough. It is not her first breakthrough, but I feel it is the most extensive, elevating her art to a new level of marvelous and engaging complexity. In addition to expanding her formal vocabulary, she has incorporated colors not seen in her previous work, which often relied on closely valued hues. This new territory can be experienced in the artist’s current exhibition, Whatsis, at DC Moore Gallery. 

In earlier works, Takenaga found and articulated images almost solely through the process of pouring paint onto a wood surface. Her more recent responses to external sources, which she identifies in works, broadens her range of formal possibilities. The painting “Translations (for Kiyonobu II)” (2023) was inspired by a print attributed to the Japanese painter Kiyonobu, born in 1664. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website: 

Kiyonobu, founder of the Torii line of artists, specialized in the painting of posters and signboards for the popular Kabuki theater. As required by the poster format, the bold, fluid lines, full, rounded forms, and flattened patterning were to be read at a distance. 

Translations for Kiyonobu I
Barbara Takenaga, “Translations (for Kiyonobu I)” (2022), acrylic on wood panel, 12 x 10 inches

Takenaga’s response is a complete transformation of the source, or what she calls a “translation.” It is impossible to make a one-to-one comparison with the original image. Her interlocking of solidly colored shapes, folded forms, poured grounds punctuated by tonally related vacuoles, and outlines results in a pale-yellow form arising out of a deep blue, watery splash or disintegrating wave. In this and the four other “translations,” the subject is the sense of something being born.  

Always a meticulous artist, Takenaga has pushed her compositions into a territory where naming her subject matter becomes impossible. Nowhere is this more evident than in “Round Trip Time” (2024), a four-panel acrylic painting where she pulls out all the stops. While marks and patterns that recall her earlier work are present, much seems new. She choreographs ribbon-like shapes, unidentifiable structures, and formal shifts that confound any reading of a stable figure-ground relationship. Our attention moves from details to discrete areas to adjacent areas and forms, and back again. Although the painting is populated by volumetric forms, there is no focal one point. Areas of solid and of watery color, dissolving forms and marks, drips, concentric forms, and stacks of repeated lines demarcate the surface. The relationship of fluid and metamorphosing to solid and fixed material has taken on new possibilities in her work. Everything seems to exist in a state of movement and change. 

What distinguishes “Round Trip Time” and related paintings, such as “Hummer” and “Hunky Dory (AT)” (both 2024), from “Firefly,” “Cirrus,” and “Two Falls” (all 2023) are the palette, formal relationships, and, perhaps most importantly, color. The three earlier paintings are predominantly blue, inclining us to read them as sky or water, vast expanses inhabited by a multitude of different forms. Pattern and variation are key to their visual coherence. In the works done just a year later, Takenaga ups the ante by placing color next to color, juxtaposing flowing, elegant lines, curling forms, pours, and splatters. The later paintings are driven not by image, but by discovery. “Round Trip Time”’s wide range of marks and forms cohere, but in a different, less schematic way than the 2023 pieces. We need to look longer to become cognizant of the continuous dance between different shapes, vocabularies, and spaces. The subtlety has grown more nuanced and complex. 

So many different worlds join and overlap in “Round Trip Time.” Takenaga had to find her way across the surface while discovering and articulating different layers, as well as suggesting disparate portals. It is a diary of a searching for materially rooted forms while simultaneously reaching for something unfixed and uncontainable, a painting that explores the possibilities of flatness, layering, and spatiality. Time’s winged chariot animates “Round Trip Time,” infusing it with a quiet urgency and a wondrous joy. 

Barbara Takenaga: Whatsis continues at DC Moore Gallery (535 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through April 27. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

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