Tuesday, May 24, 2011

What's So Japan About It? Part 2

During the month of May, in conjunction with Cullom Gallery's current exhibit, East by West (highlighting work by eleven different artists who draw on technical and aesthetic traditions of Japanese art on or of paper) participating artists are invited to comment on the question, What's so Japan about it?" as the question relates to their own work.  In the second installment of the series, Northampton, MA artist, Annie Bissett talks about her embrace of the technical properties of Japanese woodblock printmaking, and her departure from their historic content.  B.C.

This thing I do, moku hanga, is very Japanese. The term moku hanga is Japanese for woodblock print -- moku means wood and hanga means print. Woodblock printing was brought to Japan in the 8th century by Buddhists from China and was first used to reproduce religious texts. After a time colors began to be added by hand and then, as woodblock printing became the primary form of commercial printing in Japan, printers began to carve blocks for each color. Japanese woodblock prints, also called ukiyo-e, are known especially for their intense use of color and for the fact that the pigments are water-based rather than oil-based. Although admittedly I am a Japanophile, I didn’t start working with moku hanga because I wanted to do Japanese art. I learned moku hanga because I was trying to find an artistic medium that would suit my way of working, that was neither toxic nor messy, and that would be easy and compact enough to do on the side in my small home-based studio while I continued to serve my freelance digital commercial illustration clients. If you’ve ever seen a genuine Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock print, you know that the Japanese brought this art form to unimaginable heights of perfection. Because of this, working with the Japanese method of waterbased woodblock printing can be a difficult burden to bear. Not many of us 21st century western artists could hope to achieve the degree of perfection attained by the great 17th and 18th century ukiyo-e masters, nor do we need to try. Unfortunately, though, that type of work is what many people think of when you say "Japanese woodblock," so that's often the silent standard in their minds. I try to avoid this association by saying “woodcut,” “moku hanga” or even “woodprint,” a term I'm growing fond of.

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892)  The night is still... From 100 Aspects of the Moon.  Date: 1888
Like many moku hanga beginners, my first few prints were Japanese-y. I did a triptych of the Kamakura Buddha statue and a few tai chi figures. But after a year or so I began to find my voice. I realized that I could take liberties with the tradition, and the technique became a vehicle for the subject matter I was interested in. I'm an artist who is topic-oriented rather than process-oriented, so all my ways of working are in service to the idea behind the print. I make moku hanga maps from views of the earth I find on Google Earth, I imitate western printmakers when referencing western historical material, I do whatever I need to do to bring my idea to life using moku hanga.

Annie Bissett.  Borders #1: U.S. Mexico. Date: 2008.  14 x 22 inches
I'm often conscious of the Japanese-ness of the method as I work, however. How can you do a bokashi (color blend technique) and not compare yourself to the ukiyo-e masters? Making a bokashi connects you to Japan. Using washi connects you to Japan. The carving tools, the brushes, the process itself are very Japanese in their simplicity, their beauty, their form. I don't mind that. I love it, in fact, because I love Japan. Yet I find that I am able to make very American art using this very Japanese art form. That paradox is somehow part of the work and is often amusing to me. One print I made in my recent "Pilgrims" series needed to show two Pilgrims as an American Adam and Eve, and I wanted to show them making love. I couldn't resist referencing Utamaro's beautiful shunga (erotica) work, so I copied one of his poses and I think the little inside joke worked well.

Annie Bissett.  American Bible Story.  2009.  11-5/8 x 13-5/8 inches.  Japanese woodblock print.
As an artist, the work I want to make is about my life, my country, my world, my worries, my cares and concerns. If I could paint I would do it with paint, but I can't paint. The transparent color overlays inherent in the moku hanga method somehow make sense to me after a long career as a commercial artist, so that's how I've chosen to express myself. I try to take the support of the beauty and elegance and history of the method without letting go of my own voice and identity.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Washington Project - Update, Day 8

Since touring and sketching locations throughout Washington State during April 2011, artists Eva Pietzcker has returned home to Berlin and is busy carving woodblocks for a number of views.  She tells me that Soda Spring and Steamboat Rock are in process.  Things got busy in Seattle at the same time, and I've been aware that the last chapter of Eva's tour with C.G. booster, Joe Kaftan, was missing from the story, sorry Joe.  Now that I'm on vacation for a week, I finally have time to catch up on some of these things.  So here it is, Day 8 of The Washington Project in Joe's words.  More to come, no doubt.  B.C.

Day 8
We rose in Forks, WA and went straight to the nearest dinner, per Eva's request.  Over hash browns and coffee, we talked about similar childhoods, and how for both of us, creativity, the value of new experiences, and even Star Trek were all emphasized in our up bringing. Eva said she was taught that art was sacred - a belief that still completely impacts her life. She wondered if the creative life, by definition, is one of openness and exploration.

Our fist stop was First Beach in La Push. I mentioned that I was immediately taken by the scene of the village with huge sea stack islands just off shore.  'Why do you like this view?' Eva asked.  'I love places where you can see peoples' first attempts to connect with the landscape, like this village on the edge of the country, and old barns, or decrepit docks and wooden bridges in the country.'  Eva said, 'For me, there is so much evidence of humans here. I prefer what is wild, and fresh. Working with the untouched landscape, I want to relate this to these areas in us, that are maybe fundamentally good in themselves, or at least untouched.'  Eva smiled at me looking at the sea stacks and the ocean and said 'So could we go have a look at second beach, next?'

As soon as we arrived at second beach, Eva quickly moved toward a muscle encrusted boulder that lay in the path of a low stream, took a seat, and dove into a sketch. She was in front of a broad sea stack island, that was just off shore. Pacific rollers crashed around the island, and seagulls glided off to the side of the rock edges, just above the surf. This was the sunniest and brightest I had ever seen the Washington coast.

After pleasant lunch in Forks, we drove south and then east along the Hoe River toward the Hoe Rain Forrest.  About 10 miles up the road, Eva very excitedly said, 'Stop the car, stop the car! I know we are going to see rain forrest, but the river is like none I've ever seen!  With these enormous logs, bigger than I thought possible, I must have a look'. I obliged and watched her do her survey dance, until she settled on the pebbled bank of the river. She was posed in front of a tree trunk that was 150 feet long. The river basin was flat, wide and mostly made up of rounded gravel, with the sinewy streams cutting in and out between massive logs and fallen trees. A birch tree grove was beyond the river with pines behind them, leading back to snow covered mountains. It was an awesome scene. After returning from an long exploration climb on downed logs, I noticed Eva was no longer working, but was aggressively throwing rocks into the river. I waved her toward the car, and waited for her there. After a while, she approached, and said. 'I am done making art. It takes a lot out of me, and I can't give anymore'.  'Forever?' I said with a smile. 'Yes,' she responded,  'You broke me, you took me to too many places, now I'm broken.' I apologized and asked if we still might have a look at the Hoe Rain Forrest.  'If you insist.' she said with a fake grimace.
As we drove, she said. 'You know there are painters who paint 8 hours a day, but for me I have to hold all the plates in my mind, and I have to create something that is challenging and interesting, because this is only the beginning of the process, as I will cut and print for around 3 weeks for each sketch. And then it is very important that I am never repeating myself, because that is boring, so I really have to concentrate, and all that concentration can hurt, or at very least be very exhausting.'

When we arrived at the Hoe Rain Forrest, Eva perked up at the sight of the long drapes of moss hanging from the Spruce branches. We walked to the Hall of Mosses. We found ourselves standing next to a large beautiful owl, that was hiding on a lower branch. We continued into the great hall, and were surrounded by the layers of back-lit yellow moss, looking like so many golden tapestry. We were both quieted by the sight, and just slowly turned in circles, looking up, looking down taking in the illuminated richness of this wholly unique wonder forest. I didn't know their were so many shades of green in the world.
I whispered to Eva, 'If ferries exist, they definitely live here.' After a moment, I asked Eva if she was in the spirit to sketch here. She paused and said, 'Perhaps not. This is more of an etchers setting, so many lines in these trees, thousands and thousands of lines. This is magical, but it is not for my sketch pad I think.'  With that she turned back on the path toward the entrance  and said, 'Beside I am pretty sure we are on vacation now.'  So we left the forest and headed to the coast for a nice walk on the beach.

What's So Japan About It?

During the month of May, in conjunction with Cullom Gallery's current exhibit, East by West (highlighting work by eleven different artists who draw on technical and aesthetic traditions of Japanese art on or of paper) participating artists are invited to comment on the question, What's so Japan about it?" as it relates to their own work.  In the first response, Kansas City artist, Saskia Lehnert, shares her nexus of ukiyo-e, gender identity, and looking at Japanese culture from the outside in.  B.C.

Saskia Lehnert. Looking into the Sun: The Appearance of the Artist Imagining Herself as a Japanese Warrior in a Kurosawa Film. Japanese woodblock print. 22 x 15 inches.

The piece in question is a self-portrait entitled, “Looking into the Sun: The Appearance of the Artist Imagining Herself as a Japanese Warrior in a Kurosawa Film.” The image used to create this woodblock print comes from a photograph, distilled through a line screen pattern in photoshop, carved with a dremel tool in woodblock, and printed in the traditional Japanese style, known as moku hanga. This print was originally conceived as a kite print, and in fact an artist's proof from the edition was mounted and exhibited as a kite in Japan. The subject and title of the print contains many ukiyo-e references, and was originally inspired by traditional Japanese kite prints of the Edo period (1603-1868): namely the 'big head' kites such as the Daruma kites and those depicting close-up, enlarged head shots of famous actors of the day or great warriors from Japanese history. During that time period in Japan, the government under the Tokugawa Shogunate kept tight control on every aspect of people's lives, and everyone was expected to keep to a very specific place and role in society. As John Stevenson notes in the book, “Japanese Kite Prints”, during the seventeenth century, “kite-flying itself could be a mild form of rebellion against a strictly stratified hierarchy. Commoners loved to fly kites over the compounds of noble families in Edo: though not specifically forbidden, this was considered a way of thumbing the nose at social superiors.” Indeed, it was this very idea that provided the main inspiration for this print: the power of flying symbolically through the sky over the heads of society below. I decided that the 'big head' in my version of a kite print needed to be mine. Not that my ego is currently so enlarged as to need to fly above everyone else, but I felt that a bit of self-empowerment through art- making would certainly be in order for my own personal time and place in the world today.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861) “Mutsuki (the New Year's Festival)”. From the series, Five Festivals (Go sekku no uchi) c. 1845

The title of my print gives a nod to Yoshitoshi's famous print series, "32 Aspects of Customs and Manners (32 Aspects of Women)," produced at the end of the nineteenth century. These prints, with titles such as, “Looking sleepy: the appearance of a courtesan of the Meiji era”, or “Looking weighted-down: the appearance of a waitress at Fukagawa in the Tempo era”, depict women from various time periods in Japanese history caught in every-day moments of their lives. I adopted the naming conventions of these titles to draw a comparison between Yoshitoshi's depiction of women and my own contemporary depiction of my female self outside the Japanese tradition. Although Yoshitoshi shows a sensitivity to the women he depicts, which in my mind exceeds many of his ukiyo-e predecessors, I still hope to highlight the difference in the way his women 'look' and the way I 'look' as both the subject and the artist of this print.

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839 - 1892) “Looking relaxed: the appearance of a Kyoto geisha of the Kansei era” (1789-1801). From the series: Thirty-two Aspects of Women published by Tsunashima Kamekichi, 1888
Yet not only have I muddied the gender role in this reference by 'imaging myself' into a heroic Japanese male role, unlike Yoshitoshi, it is not a role from a specific time and place in Japanese history that I take my inspiration from, but more, from my rather removed impressions of Japanese history as gathered from the movies and cultural artifacts exported from Japan, like what I absorb from watching a Kurosawa samurai film. More layers, more degrees of separation, but perhaps instead of being a romanticizing, exoticizing force, I can turn that distance into an advantage and not a disadvantage.

from Akira Kurosawa's 1954 film, The Seven Samurai

Additionally, by using myself as the subject of the print, and then imagining myself into a typical ukiyo-e subject, it gave me a chance to examine more closely my unique connection to the ukiyo-e tradition, and the ways in which it and the larger picture of Japanese artistic and aesthetic concerns inform my own work. It became a means to highlight the contradiction of a Western, American, woman artist in the twenty-first century with minimal real-life connection to modern Japan working in the tradition of Japanese woodblock prints. Also, it was a way to find the resolutions inherent in that contradiction. And so, there I am, looking heroic, looking fierce like a traditional samurai warrior. I am looking into the (Rising) Sun, both literally and symbolically; it's nebulous, it's slightly blinding, it's hard to describe what I see, but I'm still seeking to find that insight, perhaps an insight that only an outsider can bring, that only an outsider can take away. After all, the technique, content, and inspiration used in my prints exists just as much outside the ukiyo-e tradition as in it; It's quite an interesting hybrid indeed.