Hue-Ping Lin and Dick Easley began their love affair with Japanese prints before they even dreamed of opening an art gallery. Volunteering as a guide at the University Art Museum at the University of Oregon (now the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art) led Easley to collect Japanese prints, which led the couple to open the White Lotus Gallery. to 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’m still excited to see a work of art.”
The White Lotus Gallery’s current exhibition, “Beyond Creative: Japanese Prints Since the 1950s,” highlights prints created after 1950 by artists who helped establish modern printmaking in Japan and by Japanese-American artists who still work today. The works and careers of Yuji Hiratsuka, Saitō Kiyoshi, and Chizuko Yoshida are particularly noteworthy.
Yuji Hiratsuka is one of the star artists who still makes art. He plans to retire from his post as an art professor at Oregon State University next year, after 30 years at the institution. Born in Japan, Hiratsuka obtained a BS in Arts Education from 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 grown on top of thirty western skyscrapers, where people dine on McDonald’s burgers while watching the sumo wrestling. In my work, I explore this chaotic coexistence.
At Hiratsuka Mystical drink (1994), a figure of a man dressed in Western clothes sips 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 is found in my portraits. In this case, I always leave the face blank or flat and the profile very simple.
Mystical drink is one of some 35 engravings in this exhibition. This is a diverse group of prints, but Lin, who co-hosted the show with gallery assistant Jennifer Huang, connects them all to the Creative Prints movement or sōsaku-hanga. This movement in Japan, she explains, is tantamount to the modern art movement in Western culture.
Modernism in Japan was a response to pressures different from those of Western modernism; this is especially true in engraving. One factor that had a huge influence on the change in focus in Japan was the choice of artists to work independently to produce a print rather than to work with a larger group of artists and artisans. Previously, Japanese artists working under the ukiyo-e system were hired by a print studio and did not always have a say in their subject. They delivered their designs or designs to others who sculpted and printed their images.
Everything changed when the artists set out on their own. Separating from the tradition of collaboration, artists achieved complete control over their work and were free to express themselves. This freedom gave rise to a new movement in which Japanese engravers experimented with their art. This penchant for experimentation resulted in the individual styles depicted in “Beyond Creation”.
Saitō Kiyoshi (1907 – 1997) helped promote the Creative Prints movement outside of Japan. He was among the first Japanese artists to be recognized at the São Paulo Biennale in 1951. In Katsura Kyoto, a 1961 woodcut, the artist depicts a traditional outdoor landscape but pushes the traditional ukiyo-e understanding of forms in a new territory. Architecture and trees are represented in his work as silhouettes. This simplification of subjects to their basic forms is a characteristic of modernism.
Twenty years after Kiyoshi’s death, in 2017, the Kiyoshi Saitō Art Museum was established (the name follows the Japanese tradition of listing surnames first). The museum, located in Fukushima, Japan, includes a collection of Kiyoshi art from 1928 to 1962, a period in which the artist merged Western and Japanese traditions into a graphic and recognizable – modern – style that is clean.
While Kiyoshi’s work evolves towards abstraction, Chizuko Yoshida’s work fully embraces abstraction. During her life she experimented with different styles, combining graphic markings with calligraphy or using vivid subjects like butterflies as design elements. Unlike many of her male counterparts, who stuck to one style once they discovered it, Yoshida’s style has continuously evolved throughout her career.
Yoshida’s Twinkled is a wonderful example of a print made by an influential woman from the Creative Prints movement. She helped found the Women’s Print Association in 1956, which lasted until 1966. And the topic in Twinkled is far from the tearooms, courtesans, landscapes or architecture presented in ukiyo-e impressions.
The composition in Twinkled largely consists of circles. They are cut out in bands of color, seem to rise or float in the atmosphere. Other circles still seem to be representations of suns and some wavy marks want to be read as waves. Other shapes also seem recognizable, but not quite. The work is playful and representative of a long adventurous career.
If you’ve ever taken a course in modern European art, you’re probably familiar with the impact of traditional Japanese prints on Western artists such as Vincent van Gogh, Edvard Munch, or Gustav Klimt. But you might not know that Western artists, in turn, had an equal effect on Japanese modernism. The exhibition at White Lotus puts Japanese art at the forefront, rather than as a side note of European modernism. And this reminds us that cultural adaptation has been done in both directions: from east to west and then vice versa.
Lin usually travels to Japan once or twice a year to visit galleries and artists. His last trip was in 2019. His visit scheduled for spring 2020 was canceled due to the pandemic. Almost all of the prints presented in this exhibition come from the gallery’s permanent collection. The modern printing movement from Japan, she says, was Easley’s favorite.
She quotes a quote from the Japanese novelist Soseki Natsume (1867 – 1916), who studied British literature in the UK from 1901 to 1902. Natsume’s quote reminds me that Japanese artists, including novelists, were introduced to modern Western thought from the start. as at the turn of the 20th century: “Art begins with self-expression and ends with self-expression.
“Beyond Creative: Japanese Prints Since 1950” is on view at the White Lotus Gallery (767 Willamette St, Eugene) until November 13. The gallery is open Tuesday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.