Portland Center Stage Rent Portland Oregon

Art review: Yoshi Kitai’s “Ambivalence”

The artist continues his "Conflux" series with his signature Gansai dots and gilded clouds in this June show at Froelick Gallery.

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Yoshishiro Kitai, Conflux #17, 2022. Gold leaf, Gansai paint, gesso on paper, 30×22 inches. Image courtesy of Froelick Gallery

Rainbow hues, concentric dots, billowing gold clouds. When I write out this description of Yoshi Kitai’s work in “Ambivalence” now on view at Froelick Gallery, it sounds like something my young daughters would imagine. “On paper,” it seems as though unicorns must be just around the bend and that everything is, well, rainbows and unicorns. 

It’s the disconnect between this literal description and the effect of these works that fascinates me. The multi-hued and shiny surfaces point to something other than their happy-go-lucky facade. 

This show was supposed to be in April but was postponed until June, presumably in hopes that some of the controversy swirling around the gallery’s owner, Charles Froelick, would dissipate. Jennifer Rabin has already thoughtfully covered this multilayered debacle for ArtsWatch (here and here) and I have no intention of rehashing that here. Even so, it remains a haze that hangs over the show and the gallery space in general. I initially assumed that the title, “Ambivalence,” was some thinly veiled reference to the artist’s discomfort with the situation. It’s not, but some resonance remains. 

Kitai emigrated from Osaka, Japan to the United States in 1994. He has now spent over half his life outside of Japan, but his ties to his country of origin remain. His artistic practice incorporates gansai (traditional Japanese watercolor) and gold or silver metallic leaf familiar from Japanese screen paintings. Gesso lends texture to the gilding; the surfaces aren’t flat but variegated with undulating blobs. 

Yoshishiro Kitai, Conflux #15, 2022. Gold leaf, Gansai paint, gesso on paper, 30 X 22 inches. Image courtesy of Froelick Gallery.

Kitai’s artist statement for “Ambivalence” homes in on the meteorological meaning of the blending colors and puffy clouds. The blending colors represent different bodies of air, meeting and coalescing, sometimes remaining distinct and sometimes becoming indistinguishable from one another. The nine 2022 Conflux works feature more prominent background colors; a deep purple fades to yellow in  Conflux #14 and Conflux #17. All of the 2022 works have these pastel-hued grounds that weren’t as prominent in earlier works. The clouds reference both the world’s interconnectedness and an elevated view or “objective perspective long at a place from a non-disruptive and fair distance.”

There’s a weight to these works that I don’t recall being attuned to in the same way in Kitai’s earlier work, even installments in the same Conflux series. This confused me, because on a surface level, the basic parameters are the same: Gansai dots in jewel tones and gessoed gilt clouds. 

In the 2022 works, though, the gilded clouds and patterned dots lack integration. In earlier works, the dots and gilding sometimes overlapped; there was a symbiosis between the two parts. In the series’ latest installments, the dots respect the clouds’ edges. The gold field is impenetrable and fixed, a border rather than a passage. 

Yoshishiro Kitai, Conflux #18, 2022. Gold leaf, Gansai paint, gesso on canvas, 40 x 30 inches. Image courtesy of Froelick Gallery.

The notion of the impenetrable border has been unavoidable for the past two years of pandemic disruption. Immigration always entails separation, but until 2020 that separation, at least for Kitai, was reversible. He could return to Japan, he could see family, he could have some semblance of a life in both places even if it proceeded in fits and starts. The pandemic put a stop to this. Global flow halted abruptly and separation from family and friends became, at least temporarily, irreversible. 

The titular “Ambivalence” isn’t about Charles Froelick’s decisions (he responded to criticisms here). It runs much deeper and more personal for Kitai. Questions of “Did I make the right decision in leaving home?” Or “What could have been if I had stayed?” “Should I have returned more when I still could?” The upheaval of the pandemic and its forced separations raised these questions for many, but especially those like Kitai who were far from family. Ambivalence is uncertainty about the past, present, and even the future. 

Yoshishiro Kitai, Conflux #21, 2022. Gold leaf, Gansai paint, gesso on canvas, 60 x 48 inches. Image courtesy of Froelick Gallery.

Kitai’s works have always had a meditative quality for me. I think it’s the meticulous application of the dots; there’s patience there that I just don’t have the capacity for. In the latest works in the Conflux series, I’m forcefully reminded of the oft-repeated advice in popular meditation culture: “If your mind wanders, acknowledge the thoughts without judgment, and let them float away.” (Or something like that; I’m usually too busy judging my mind’s wandering to commit whatever this phrase is to memory.) Kitai’s clouds have a depth to them, physically lent by the gesso underneath and metaphorically by care and deep feeling.

Contemporary culture places a premium on certainty. Certainty equals conviction; it leaves no room for doubt. There is an inherent reductiveness in that view, though – true things don’t always cancel one another out. Leaving home can be both right and sad, and those things can be felt in equal measure. It’s possible to disagree and not disavow. Rainbows can be beautiful and melancholic, and the unicorns can still be just over the next rise.

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“Ambivalence” is on view until July 9th along with Gwen Davidson’s show “Alignment.” Froelick Gallery is located at 714 NW Davis Street and is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 11 am-5:30 pm.

Laurel Reed Pavic is an art historian. Her academic research dealt with painting in 15th and 16th century Dalmatia. After finishing her PhD, she quickly realized that this niche, while fascinating, was rather small and expanded her interests so that she could engage with a wider audience. In addition to topics traditionally associated with art history, she enjoys considering the manipulation and presentation of cultural patrimony and how art and art history entangle with identity. She teaches a variety of courses at Pacific Northwest College of Art including courses on the multiple, the history of printed matter, modernism, and protest art.

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