Japanese prints at PAM: 'Forces of Nature'
A new exhibition of Japanese prints at the Portland Art Museum focuses on the artist's relationship with nature. The small but fascinating show, "Forces of Nature: Ecology in Japanese Prints," includes all the usual Japanese icons — Mount Fuji, tsunamis, full moons — but also contains some abstraction inspired by nature.
Drawing on a diverse group of Japanese artists, "Forces of Nature" was curated by Jeannie Kenmotsu, the Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Curator of Asian Art at the Portland Art Museum, during the pandemic. It is now getting its due through Dec. 31.
The prints are from the last 50 years, the artists are Japanese-based and three-quarters are women.
One piece on the right side of the room seizes attention. Its two panels read right to left, and they resemble Japanese Hell scrolls from the 12th century for their depiction of fire and demons. Both chromaprint panels contain bright colors, set behind clear plastic, which gives them an almost automotive gloss. The artist, Chiho Aoshima, was born in 1974 and became part of Takashi Murakami's Kaikai Kiki Collective and his Superflat movement.
(The simple Ukiyo-e woodblock prints of the Edo period had flat colors and reduced perspective. Superflat was inspired by that, hence its comic-book style drawings, popular imagery and saturated colors. It was also inspired by Osamu Tezuka, the Walt Disney of Japan, who crated Astro/Atom Boy, but its other important claim was to "flatten" the gap between high art and popular art.)
"It's a Superflat aesthetic, but there's often something a little bit deeper going on," Kenmotsu said. "When you come up close, it's full of intricate detail."
The right side shows a typhoon being formed with giant spouts of water, and a Hokusai-style giant wave breaking, to the left, on the city. In the water, Aoshima puts all sorts of nymphs and mermaids, which is part of her mix of cute imagery and horror. A giant female form, a kind of anthropomorphic volcano with salon-style painted nails, looks across at a ghostly person made from what looks like hot rod flame decals.
Aoshima made the first version in 2004, but since it is a digital work, she updates it, especially after the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, with its tidal wave and destruction of the Fukushima nuclear plant.
"It might remind you of anime imagery or manga, but I think it is quite uniquely her own," Kenmotsu said. She singles out the green balls spilling water into the ocean. "The level of detail and color, and this explosion of lush, beautiful vegetation and flowers, it's quite beautiful and interesting."
Kenmotsu does not think the artist is making a specific moral take on the relationship of humans to their environment. "But I think that they're certainly to be interpreted by the viewer, if they so wish," she said.
Iwami Reika's "Living on the Moon" is a monochrome, woodblock print that shows a round moon with Reika's signature gold butterfly near the center.
Reika (1927-2020) embossed the thick, handmade paper with wave shapes, which could be water or clouds. In the black foreground, wood grain patterns also are visible, a tribute to the tradition of woodblock printing.
"People are really drawn to her because her work is so striking. It's abstract and it's warm and inviting at the same time, this theme of living on the moon, which is poetic," Kenmotsu said.
Water is a big theme in Reika's work, but also throughout the show, as many artists use it to express their feelings about nature. "A common theme in the show is that a number of the works leave open-ended a lot of questions about what are they representing. In this case, are you on the moon? Are you gazing at the moon? Do you see yourself in the moon? That's also a common poetic trope in Japanese literature."
Ritsuko Ozeki, who shows at Froelick Gallery in Old Town, has a 2017 etching called "Unravel Number 3.".The black aquatint marks look like flowers or wheels or maybe seaweed. There's an iridescent quality to the paper, seen at the right angle. Ozeki often depicts lace and textiles and their relationship to the female body, but after 2011 things took a darker turn, with the wedding gown lace and fishing nets torn, as though by a tsunami.
"She was reflecting on the kind of disrupted, broken apart, new reality of the post 3-11 world," Kenmotsu said, referring to the March 11, 2011, earthquake date. Of the whole show, she added, "These are contemporary thoughts about the Japanese artists' perspective on a relationship to their environment. It's very difficult today to think about that relationship without thinking about 2011. It was just such a pivotal, transformational moment that is still impacting thousands of people."
Aki Mana's "The Day I Saw the Wind", a woodblock print on paper, looks like a lowercase letter "I" on a background of leaf patterns. Mana is known for her soft, organic geometric shapes. She lives in the countryside and makes small, personal prints with poetic titles. "What attracted me to this piece is she is really just working with ink on white paper, but manages somehow to achieve such an incredible range of tone and variation, which you don't often see in woodblock printmaking," Kenmotsu said. A small woman, Mana used her whole body to press the woodblock down on the paper.
Sekino Jun'ichiro, Sekino Yowsaku
As well as great waves, Hokusai also printed a lot of Mount Fujis. There is a tribute to Mount Fuji with clouds above the cone and mist above the city of Tokyo at its base. It is by Sekino Jun'ichiro and is called "Red Fuji." Jun'ichiro was a master of color, and this piece is quite understated. Each color was a separate pass with the woodblock, from the grades of red to the shades of mustard.
Next to it is a piece by his son, Sekino Yowsaku, called "Wetlands," also a color woodblock print on paper. "Wetlands" shows a green river cutting through a yellow field with a great variety of greens giving depth to the river channel.
"He started by assisting his father in the studio and then became a printmaker in his own right." Yowsaku studied engineering for a while. "I saw him actually carving a piece a few years ago and it's just absolutely intricate and amazing," Kenmotsu said. "The level of physical labor and effort that goes into crafting every one of those woodblocks, let alone the finished print, it's almost hard to appreciate seeing the finished work."
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