Monday | 01 July, 2013 | 1:07 pm

Metal masterpieces

By Lynn Stanley

Artist’s choice of canvases is steel and anodized aluminum

July 2013 - In her Brooklyn, N.Y., studio Miya Ando practices her art almost as a meditation exercise. Carefully working the material in a repetitive pattern of processes, she alters its surface to reveal delicate images and colorscapes that are both hauntingly beautiful and deceptively simple. Ando’s industrial watercolors have earned her international recognition. But the post-minimalist artist isn’t using cold-pressed paper, water-soluble pigments and sable-hair brushes. Her canvases are cold and hot-rolled steel and anodized aluminum, her paints a palette of patinas, automotive lacquers, dye-baths and muriatic acid. Ando’s toolkit includes a MIG welder, oxygen-acetylene torch, chop saws, sanders, grinders and good old-fashioned elbow grease. 

“People don’t expect to see ethereal images on plate cold-rolled steel,” she says. This juxtaposition between image and material is the theme that connects her work and reflects the events and experiences that have shaped her life. As a child Ando divided her time between life in a small Buddhist temple in Okayama, Japan, where her grandfather, Gakujyo Ando, served as head priest and a family residence in the Santa Cruz Mountains in Northern California. Her Buddhist lineage and 16 generations of Japanese swordsmithing gave Ando a natural love and deep-seated respect for metal. The University of California, Berkeley graduate took a community welding class, practiced raising techniques with copper, blacksmithing and freehand torch cutting. She also served as an apprentice to a master metalsmith in Japan where she focused her efforts on finishing. “I think of myself as a hybrid identity,” says Ando. “I have a dual interest in preserving tradition and fine craftsmanship while continuing to bring the medium of metal into the future by finding innovative ways to change its appearance.”


Mastering metal

Ando says she first explored this idea when she began to sand steel and discovered beauty in the resulting silver and gray shadings. “I wanted to present the metal as it was, in its true state,” she explains. “ I thought, ‘I’m going to show this as a painting,’ so I started with gun blue, a solution that can take steel from gray to shades of black, lacquered it and started showing my first pieces in 2005.”

Ando recalls experimenting with different finishes in her San Francisco apartment, testing patinas in her oven and using a small oxygen-acetylene torch in her kitchen. “I had a picture in my mind of how I wanted the steel to look, so I practiced with the metal and tried different things until I was able to translate that idea onto its surface,” she says.

Ando worked exclusively with steel until 2010 when she began to investigate ways to paint on aluminum. “I found it was a whole different animal,” she says. “Aluminum doesn’t react in any way like steel. Everything that turns steel black has no effect on aluminum. This led me to delve into anodizing and hand-dying to create my paintings on an aluminum canvas.”

Anodizing aluminum improves corrosion resistance and surface hardness but also creates a porous oxide layer that allows the metal to accept color dyes. Anodizing reached full-scale industrial use in 1923 and oxalic acid anodizing was first patented in Japan the same year. Ando, a specialist in developing unique finishes, has helped advance the technology by pioneering the use of hand-dyed, anodized techniques in art. “The effect I achieve feels like a watercolor yet is a permanent resident of the metal,” she says. “These paintings are a visual expression of my ideas, my thesis, if you will. The secret is in my application and some of the ways I arrive at the transitions.”



Ando also has led the way in developing the methods she uses to layer patinas and lacquers on steel. Her work and techniques have caught the attention of organizations like the 9/11 London Project , London, England. The 9/11 London Project Foundation commissioned Ando to turn a 3-story-high piece of steel that fell 70 stories from a World Trade Center tower into public artwork. The piece marked the tenth anniversary of 9/11. The educational charity was established to develop an educational program for schools as a legacy to build hope from tragedy. When Ando examined the crumpled 1-in. thick hot-rolled steel plate it was covered with a ¼ inch to ½ inch of pitted rust. “My idea was to sand and refinish part of the steel to reveal a polished, light-reflecting surface within the metal,” she explains. “I wanted to create a meditative environment on the steel plate by polishing a portion of it to a mirror finish. Ando, assisted by Brooklyn-based fabricator Milgo/ Bufkin, sandblasted, ground and hand-polished the selected area on the 28-foot-tall piece of steel. “It took a lot of muscle and nearly one year to complete,” she says. “I left the columns unchanged to present the material in a pure and honest manner. The polished portion almost becomes dematerialized with its ability to reflect light and clouds. I wanted something that would reflect light back into the world to honor those who died and those whose lives were affected by 9/11.”

Ando debuted her most recent work in her first solo exhibition at Sundaram Tagore Gallery , New York, N.Y., on June 20, 2013. The series of large-scale burnished steel and anodized aluminum paintings, called Impermanence, carry Ando’s signature light-reflecting gradients infused with a shimmering, color palette. The transient landscapes and restrained horizons move metal from its comfortable industrial setting to that of the natural world.

“We tend to think of steel and anodized aluminum as strong, permanent materials,” she says. “As someone who works with these materials every day, I feel the material is quite delicate. If I touch the metal’s surface then come in the next day, I’ll find an oxidized fingerprint – evidence of how vulnerable the metal really is.” Ando is meticulous in her efforts to lacquer and anodize her material to ensure her paintings are archival.


Her rigorous and sometimes brutal techniques contradict her pursuit of distilled pastoral scenes able to transport viewers to ancient places permeated with a sense of undisturbed harmony. “It’s [steel] not for the faint of heart,” Ando says. “You are in an environment that is dark half of the time. There’s fire, sparks, acid baths and lots of sanding. And did I mention the heavy lifting? There have been times I have wanted to cry but I didn’t want to rust my steel. I do it because it’s rewarding to put the metal out there in ways no has seen yet or expects.” 

Ando works in steel and aluminum plate from 1 foot to 6 feet squares. She also works with 4 feet by 8 feet sheared squares and has tackled metal up to 40 feet long. She’ll soon start a limited edition artist series of hand-dyed, anodized aluminum and has been commissioned to collaborate with Bang & Olufsen , a designer and manufacturer of distinctive multimedia products.

“My goal is to produce works that offer a profound connection we can all share – a global dialogue if you will,” says Ando. “When people look at my work I want to leave them with a better understanding of themselves. I want them to experience a sense of calm and serenity in a world that too often is chaotic. It’s fascinating to see metal elevated to fine art. Nothing reflects light as beautifully as metal. I think its luminosity is one of the biggest reasons why I continue to work with metals over other materials.” MM

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