Miki Saito steps out of the inky shadows


Special To The Japan Times

Some artworks on first look hit you like a ton of bricks — with bold colors and striking realism. Others take time to get to know, offering hidden treasures that are revealed to the viewer over time.

The work of Miki Saito at Wada Garou, Tokyo, is an exquisite example of the latter. Citing both Salvador Dali and sumi-e (ink-wash painting) master Yoshio Ikezaki as two of her major influences, the young artist captures in her work a rare combination of surreal whimsy and painstaking craftsmanship.

Saito was born in Japan, but spent half of her life in the United States, so her work is informed both by traditional Japanese sensibilities as well as a formal Western education in the arts.

“Sumi is said to be a dying medium, and it’s very controlled within the traditional practices of the art,” Saito explains. “I want to use it in a way that is different from that of traditional Japanese arts, and that is where my Western perspective comes into play.”

Saito’s mastery of the materials and her flair for innovation are equally evident in her work, but her unique style did not emerge overnight. It was born in part from a self-proclaimed artistic slump that she experienced in 2010.

Exasperated with what she perceived as a lack of progress, Saito was ready to literally throw away one of her sumi-ink explorations, when her brother stopped her and rescued the work.

“This is mine now, but you are welcome to work on it if you like,” Saito recalls him saying. “I think it’s fantastic, and as an artist, isn’t it your job to seek beauty in everything?”

Saito retrieved the painting and proceeded to do just that. She found animals lurking in ink shadows and conjured them with a delicacy that makes the viewer wonder if they had been there all along. The piece became the beginning of her esteemed “Animals in Ink” series, and a few years later, it went on to win the Best of Show, Gary Horowitz Award at the 14th Annual Will’s Creek Survey, a national juried exhibition in the United States.

In addition to several works from the “Animals in Ink” series, the Wada Garou exhibition also features works from Saito’s “Surface Series,” which are being shown in Japan for the first time. “Surface Series” consists of paper sculptures treated with ink, making the works visually quite different from her paintings, but it, too, reflects the artist’s exploration of traditional Japanese materials.

Saito has only been back in Japan for about a year, and in that time she has already exhibited her work in five prominent venues throughout Tokyo including the National Art Center, Tokyo, and the ANA InterContinental Tokyo. With plans to return to the United States on the horizon, you won’t want to miss the chance to see this rising star’s newest work in her native Japan.

“Miki Saito: Celestial Crossing” at Wada Garou, Tokyo runs until Oct. 3; 11 a.m.-6:30 p.m. Free admission. Closed Mon., Sun. and holidays. Opening reception is on Sept. 19; 4 p.m.-8 p.m. wadagarou.com