Painted Like Praying
An Interview With Aya Ogasawara
Who is she? Look longer. What is she thinking? Look deeper. The enigmatic oil paintings of New York-based artist Aya Ogasawara reward the viewer drawn in to look more closely by her captivating, spectral figures. Often young women, plants, and animals, Ogaswara’s subjects appear in dreamlike compositions that emphasize the uncanny. The paintings often seem like they’re framing a single cryptic moment from a sweeping story, and perhaps some reflection of that story can be found in the artist’s journey, which spans across several continents. Ogasawara was born in Tokyo, where she attended an arts high school, and moved to New York to study at the Parsons School of Design and the Art Students League of New York. After being awarded a scholarship to study in Paris for a summer in 2012, she fell in love with the religious paintings of Europe, which went on to profoundly influence her work.
In her artist’s statement, Ogasawara calls the frequent appearance of figures of young girls in her paintings “the embodiment of my subconscious.” When the feminine is depicted as sacred in art, it’s often depicted as other, unknowable. But the way Ogasawara’s exploration of the sacred feminine turns inward, it beckons you closer, like a girl telling you she knows a secret. You want to hear what she’s whispering.
One of my favorite things about your paintings is the air of mystery. We often don't see the owners of hands, and the light figures seem to float on dark backgrounds that don't give away their secrets. Do you have a specific context for the images in your head while you paint? Or are they mysterious to you as well as the viewer?
The meaning or the context for the images I paint is always an enigma to me when they first come to my mind - they suddenly appear behind my eyelids when I don’t expect them, for instance when I’m taking a bath or just before falling asleep - and I gradually understand what they actually mean through the process of painting. That is why I cannot fully explain to viewers what is happening in my paintings before I complete them. Painting to me is as if I’m analyzing them, and it always makes me feel that I’m not the owner or the producer but merely a medium to let them be in this world.
One of the themes you explore in your work is femininity, which is often regarded differently in different cultures. What influences your own thinking about the feminine?
I only had a younger sister and female cousins, and went to a private girls’ school from kindergarten on, so the only male figure around me was my father when I was a child. Although I had experienced dating with a few guys after I turned 15, I didn’t know how to be “friends” with men until I came to New York to study art at university. Girls’ society works completely different from men’s, it seems to me so illogical and easily swayed by emotions, and I kind of love the fragileness. I am completely straight when it comes to relationships, but I tend to idolize the mystic power of beautiful young girls as if falling in love with them, or like a religion.
When you describe your work, you often use the phrase "the sublime." What does the sublime mean to you?
Sublime feeling to me is the emotion which is aroused when I stand in front of the Old Masters’ paintings - especially religious pictures painted in medieval era - and my thoughts go back to the time and how they painted like praying.
What about those religious paintings spoke to you?
It’s been quite hard to explain why but I now assume the fact of religious paintings, that they were painted with piety for God, it touches my heart. Also, their detailed technique overwhelmed me - although it is not super realistic, there is something that mystically attracted me.
You've studied art in Japan, Europe, and America. Were there techniques or skills that you learned on one continent that you were able to apply to your work in another?
Not particularly in terms of technique - since I studied most of my oil painting technique by reading textbooks and experimenting myself after I came to New York - but what I experienced in different continents are deeply influencing each other and have moved me forward as an artist: learning a foundation of art, especially pencil dessin, in Japan; being exposed to religious paintings of Old Masters at the Louvre Museum while staying in Paris; and having opportunities to work with artists and agents in New York.
Is it very different making a living as an artist here than it would be if you were living in Japan? What made you decide to come and do your work in America?
I would say it is considerably easier to make a living as an artist in the US, especially in New York, if the artist is still young and not well-known. Japanese people also enjoy going to museums or galleries, but they barely buy artworks of unacclaimed artists with a fair price, not like how people in New York casually do. However, my first intention was just to study at University abroad, more design and children books, and never thought about choosing fine art as my profession and staying this long. I chose New York just because it was more familiar than other cities to me since my family used to live here because of my father’s job. It turned out that the location was perfect for doing art when I started working as an artist, but I might have just returned to Japan right after graduation if I studied not fine art but design.
What’s next for you? What themes or techniques do you hope to explore in your next project?
Actually, this question was surprisingly timely to me. I have been painting with my current technique for almost ten years but I realized I might need to move on to next thing, trying different techniques, when I was talking with my artist friends. What I really want to express with my current technique is the sublime and reverent atmosphere of religious paintings, which makes us feel like we’re watching devout people praying in front of us.
However, my feeling towards my paintings get odder as the days go by, and that, it is because my life’s events have changed me somehow. My perverseness has been making me pursue something I don’t have in my life, and it seems I wanted to depict a stillness or serenity with my current technique because my private life was unstable and filled with ups and downs. Being absorbed in painting and creating the sacred world only for girls with stillness, it was like a religion to me, praying for girls instead of God. What it has changed me is marriage to my husband, I got married to this somewhat strange guy. My inner side is calm like the lulled sea for the first time as far back as I can remember. Maybe they say it must be happy, but as I said, I’m so perverse and now there is something boiling and fermenting deep from the bottom of me and it is urging me forward to painting. Now I want to paint something deeply sad but violently passionate, filled with emotion like bottomless swamp.
Banner image: "Ritual in the Courtyard"