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.

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