Hue-Ping Lin and Dick Easley began their love affair with Japanese prints before they ever dreamed of opening an art gallery. Volunteering as a docent at the University Art Museum at the University of Oregon (now the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art) led Easley to collecting Japanese prints which, in turn, led to the couple opening the White Lotus Gallery in Eugene in 1992. Easley passed away in 2017 just before the gallery celebrated its 25th anniversary but Lin continues. Even after 29 years she says “I still get excited seeing a piece of artwork.”
The current show at White Lotus Gallery, “Beyond Creative: Japanese Prints Since the 1950s” shines a light on prints created after 1950 by artists who helped establish modern printmaking in Japan and by Japanese-American artists still working today. The works and careers of Yuji Hiratsuka, Saitō Kiyoshi, and Chizuko Yoshida stand out as particularly noteworthy.
Yuji Hiratsuka is one of the featured artists who still makes art. He plans to retire from his position as an art professor at Oregon State University next year, after 30 years at the institution. Born in Japan, Hiratsuka received a B.S. in art education at Tokyo Gakugei University (Tokyo Teachers’ University). He came to the United States in 1985 to pursue graduate studies in printmaking at New Mexico State University and then Indiana University. He says the combination of Western and Eastern traditions in his art is a reflection of his upbringing: “For example, Japanese gardens are cultivated high atop thirty story Western skyscrapers, or people dine on McDonald’s hamburgers while watching Sumo wrestling. In my work I explore this chaotic coexistence.”
In Hiratsuka’s Drink Mystique (1994), a figure of a man in Western clothing sips out of a long straw. His mouth is painted red and he has no eyes. Hiratsuka attributes the minimalism in his representation of people to the simplicity of Zen philosophy: “The Zen aspect can be seen in my portraits. In this case, I always leave the face blank or flat and profile very simple.”
Drink Mystique is one of approximately 35 prints in this exhibit. They are a diverse group of prints but Lin, who co-curated the exhibit with gallery assistant Jennifer Huang, relates them all to the Creative Prints movement or sōsaku-hanga. That movement in Japan, she explains, is equivalent to the movement of modern art in Western culture.
Modernism in Japan was a response to different pressures than Modernism in the west; this is especially true in printmaking. One factor that had tremendous influence on the change of direction in Japan was artists choosing to work independently to produce a print rather than working with a larger group of artists and artisans. Previously, Japanese artists working under the traditional ukiyo-e system were hired by a print studio and didn’t always have a say over their subject matter. They delivered their designs or drawings to others who carved and printed their imagery.
That all changed when artists broke out on their own. Separating themselves from the tradition of collaboration, artists attained complete control of their work and were free to express themselves. That freedom resulted in a new movement in which Japanese printmakers experimented with their art. This penchant for experimentation resulted in the individual styles represented in “Beyond Creative.”
Saitō Kiyoshi (1907 – 1997) was instrumental in getting the Creative Prints movement known outside of Japan. He was among the first Japanese artists to be recognized at the São Paulo Biennale in 1951. In Katsura Kyoto, a woodblock print from 1961, the artist depicts a traditional outdoor landscape but pushes the traditional ukiyo-e understanding of shapes into new territory. Architecture and trees are depicted in his work as silhouettes. This simplification of subjects to their basic shapes is a hallmark of modernism.
Twenty years after Kiyoshi’s death, in 2017, the Kiyoshi Saitō Museum of Art was created (the name following the Japanese tradition of listing surnames first). The museum, located in Fukushima, Japan, includes a collection of Kiyoshi’s art from 1928 to 1962, a period in which the artist fused Western and Japanese traditions into a graphic, recognizable—modern—style of his own.
While Kiyoshi’s work moves towards abstraction, Chizuko Yoshida’s work fully embraces abstraction. During her lifetime she experimented with different styles, combining graphic marks with calligraphy or using living subjects like butterflies as design elements. Unlike many of her male counterparts, who stuck to one style once they came upon it, Yoshida’s style continually evolved throughout her career.
Yoshida’s Sparkle is a wonderful example of a print made by a woman who was influential in the Creative Prints movement. She helped found the Women’s Print Association in 1956, which lasted until 1966. And the subject matter in Sparkle is far removed from the tea houses, courtesans, landscapes or architecture featured in ukiyo-e prints.
The composition in Sparkle consists largely of circles. They are cut out of strips of color, appear to be lifting up, or floating into the atmosphere. Still other circles look like they could be representations of suns and some squiggly marks want to be read as waves. Other shapes seem recognizable too—but not quite. The work is playful and representative of a long, adventurous career.
If you have ever taken a course in European Modern art then you’re probably familiar with the impact that traditional Japanese prints had on Western artists such as Vincent van Gogh, Edvard Munch, or Gustav Klimt. But you may not know that Western artists, in turn, had an equal effect on Japanese modernism. The show at White Lotus puts Japanese art front and center, rather than as a side note to European modernism. And it reminds us that cultural adaptation went both ways: from the east to west and then back again.
Lin usually travels to Japan once or twice a year to visit galleries and artists. Her last trip was in 2019. Her scheduled visit in spring of 2020 was cancelled due to the pandemic. Almost all of the prints on display in this exhibit are from the gallery’s permanent collection. The modern print movement coming out of Japan, she says, was Easley’s favorite.
She cites a quote by Japanese novelist Soseki Natsume (1867 – 1916), who studied British literature in the United Kingdom from 1901 – 1902. The quote by Natsume reminds me that Japanese artists, including novelists, were being introduced to Western modern thought as early as the turn of the 20th century: “Art begins with the expression of the self and ends with the expression of the self.”
“Beyond Creative: Japanese Prints Since 1950” is on view at White Lotus Gallery (767 Willamette St, Eugene) through November 13th. The gallery is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10am-4pm.