Where Art Belongs
I visit Kaoli Mashio on a balmy summer day in July 2023. Her studio is in the rear courtyard of a building in Düsseldorf. Before we enter her small, tidy studio, the artist shows me a plant: shiso, an herb used abundantly in Japanese cuisine, is growing between the bushes opposite the entrance. After a brief digression into ethnobotany, we talk about painting and get straight to the works, or rather the series, I’ve come here for: a subject, a motif (or, in this case, primarily a motive), rendered from any number of different perspectives.
Kaoli Mashio left Japan in 2003, a country whose persistent chasms between modernization and tradition, between public and private, and so on, are evident in many different ways. An obsession with new technologies is juxtaposed by a more down-to-earth side—a potential consequence of a shrinking population and economic growth, but also stemming from the fact that there is little need for affectation. The further you drive into the countryside here, the more frequently you come across countless rusty, weathered building facades made of corrugated iron, a material that spread across the globe after the British patent expired thanks to the entrepreneur Carl Ludwig Wesenfeld from Barmen in Wuppertal. This allowed the material to accelerate the generic convergence of the world in the modernist period—but at the same time, it also represents a revenant of the glass and steel from which the magnificent, formal arcades of the nineteenth century were built, monuments to the era’s promise of transparency.
Neither crystalline brilliance nor splendor lie hidden in rusty corrugated iron; instead, it embodies pragmatism, protection, color, and time, along with its own surface texture—Mashio seems to show a renewed interest in these attributes in each of her works. During a longer stay in Japan, the artist’s attention was repeatedly drawn to one of these facades. Mashio’s “corrugated iron paintings” are based on her first encounter with the facade, on its initial impact, or rather impression, on an aspect that would change with each new visit. Despite their makeshift appearance, the metal sheets possess a fundamental strength: they protect the interior of a building from cold, heat, water, and snow.
When thinking about corrugated iron, artists such as Charlotte Posenenske come to mind, who worked with this material at the beginning of her career, but also Gerhard Richter. In a lesser-known strand of his oeuvre, created at the end of the 1960s when the “paragons” of art were being corroded by movements such as conceptual art and minimalism, Richter painted curtains, windows, sheets of corrugated iron, and other “constituent” elements of art. Kaoli Mashio’s work takes place two generations later, at a point in time where even the 1980s and 1990s and their lively debates about the “place” of art were also a generation ago. Yet her oeuvre is primarily about placelessness, or rather about grappling with the indeterminacy of place and consequently of her art.
While the initial pictures are still directly inspired by the rusty, brownish color of the facade, those realized later in 2020 gradually shift their focus to skin, and perhaps therefore to the body as the place where memory is contained. According to Jan and Aleida Assmann, recalling memories is much less to do with the actual moment being remembered than it is to do with the present from which the past is being reformulated. Mashio’s work on this series also regresses backwards into the future, inching toward a moment in the past that is constantly rejuvenating itself. The rusty corrugated iron is also a kind of skin, one that has been beaten by rain, typhoons, and storms.
Later, the skin colors blur with those of the rust and the sky, while the corrugated iron structure that unites all the images remains a formal constant. This also results in a kind of eroticism about the imperfection of these pictures, which demonstrate the rare ability to make light of their own resistance; this can be seen in their porous surfaces, undulating image supports, anarchic paint mixtures of pigment and glue, as well as the outlines of the increasingly dissipated echoes of the corrugated iron structure. Each picture speaks: soft whispers, groaning murmurs, grating nuances, while a strange candor about the desire to create art emerges—perhaps because each painting is only one part of a larger family.
I love listening to Kaoli Mashio speak about her work. She talks about how the lines meet, how each picture is the vessel of an experience she preserves in it. Ultimately, these images represent counterparts for the artist, perhaps somewhat akin to portraits, which diverge further and further away from the corrugated iron matrix in which they are embedded and take on a highly nuanced independent existence. I cannot help but think of Rosalind Krauss’s grids as an emblem for the autonomy of modernism—something that is inverted in Mashio’s experience-driven paintings: while for Krauss the grid still signifies the autonomy and self-referentiality of art that has long since become utopian, Kaoli’s work, starting from a generic structure, turns to a personal form of independence.
In 2011, Chris Kraus published a volume of essays titled “Where Art Belongs.” In short, it reclaims lived time as a material in the creation of visual art. Kraus chronicles the small forms of resistance to digital disembodiment and the hegemony of the entertainment, media, and culture industries, as well as the sometimes doomed but persistently heroic efforts of artists and groups to reclaim space and time. Despite all its faults, Kraus argues, the art world remains the final frontier for the desire to live differently. In this context, too, each of Mashio’s images would exist freely in space and autonomously as a snapshot of a particular moment. The view from her studio window is of another stone window set into the wall of the inner courtyard, right next to the shiso plant.