Coming to Terms
by Victor M. Cassidy
Almost yearly since the late 1970s, Michiko Itatani has had at least one solo exhibition of her paintings and sometimes more. Her shows have typically been complex installations that featured huge multi-paneled canvases with insets, and oddly shaped paintings that flowed all over the wall and onto the floor. While Itatani’s work has always been grandly ambitious, she says that her concerns have remained “quite consistent” throughout her career, “always personal and humanistic.”
"Personal Codes," Itatani’s latest show is up at the Walsh Gallery until April 17, 2010. Quite different from what we’ve seen before, this exhibition is a straightforward, but jam-packed hanging of nine silverpoint drawings and 27 oil paintings, which range in size from 11" x 9" up to 13'-2" by 12'-10" The artist states that "Personal Codes" comprises her “most personal and autobiographical work to date, reflecting recent experiences, past events, and my tentative prospective of my future life.” The work suggests that Itatani has come to terms with her status as a Japanese woman who has spent her entire adult life in the West—and with her mortality.
Itatani likens her creative process to writing a novel. “With research and consideration on focused issues,” she says, “I make a series of works. Each could parallel a chapter of a novel, though the order is looser and variation is used to re-examine and restate.”
The artist draws from Eastern and Western sources. On a trip to Japan, she was intensely moved by the White Sand Sea, a raked area of white quartz sand in a Kyoto temple that she viewed by moonlight. Traveling to the Czech Republic, she visited Prague’s 17th century Wallenstein Palace. She admired its Baroque interior and was “mesmerized” by its Dripstone Wall, which is covered with artificial dripstone rock on which frogs, snakes, lions, and monsters are carved. The Kyoto temple and Wallenstein Palace show opposite development, she states in the exhibition literature. The West “went to the additive, ecstatic and anthropomorphic” while the East “went to [the] reductive, meditative, and symbolic.” The West demands “physical and emotional participation” while the East “commands abandonment of them.”
An Eastern aesthetic dominates nine paintings from 2009 and 2010 which Itatani titles Personal Codes. These are mostly done in soft bronze, cream, and gray, with pale washes and subtle color transitions. At the lower center of these paintings is a circle that resembles lights. Surrounding this is an oval area that may have vertical drip marks around its periphery. Floating triangles, sometimes layered, fill the top part of the paintings. These triangles which are made of parallel straight lines--and are thus translucent--appear in every painting or drawing that Itatani has ever made. They represent her presence in the work.
The circle of lights has appeared in many Itatani paintings, taking different forms. Sometimes the circle is a chandelier in an architectural interior and sometimes it wraps around the trunk of a tree in a forest. The oval area surrounding the circle of lights is new, especially the way that Itatani has marked Chinese and Japanese characters on it in translucent paint. At the show’s opening, people read these characters, identified some words, and asked the artist what it all meant. She assured them that there were no secret messages in her paintings. The calligraphy, which seems to be applied with a hypodermic needle--the same way that she does the floating triangles--recalls her novelistic creative process.
Other Personal Codes paintings are variations in which colors darken or lighten, the circle of lights slips off the painting at the bottom, and the drips and screens grow or shrink. One of the variations is black overall with silver, bronze and white imagery.
Ten paintings in this show form a group that the artist calls HyperBaroque. These incorporate imagery that appeared in Itatani’s "Cosmic Theater II" exhibition at Flatfile Galleries in 2008. The painting entitled Star Messenger [2008, seen above, image credit at bottom] from the HyperBaroque series presumably contains imagery from the Wallenstein Palace. We see an elaborate library with bookshelves inset in the walls on two levels, several illuminated globes lined up on the carpeted floor, the ceiling open to the sky, a circle of lights above, and a tiny space satellite drawn on one of the globes. In the variations, the circle of lights ends up on the rug, random fields of dots appear in the painting, there are different designs in the carpeting, and a toy rocket stands next to one of the globes. One work presents the same imagery in white.
The most appealing piece in this show is Cosmic Wanderlust (2009, seen above), a gigantic two-panel work in white, black and gray. We see a forest of trees, spots falling through the air like snow, the circle of lights placed like an oval rug on the forest floor, and the floating triangles which look like curtains blown gently by the wind. This is wonderfully lyrical work by an artist who has found peace.
--Victor M. Cassidy
(Middle image: Michiko Itatani. Star Messenger. 2008. Image courtesy of Walsh Gallery.)
by Robin Dluzen
Though sheer physical presence is obvious upon entering Chicago-based Michiko Itatani’s solo exhibition at the West Loop’s Walsh Gallery, these oil paintings exude a warmth rare in works of Abstract Expressionist scale. Her palette of warm blacks, browns, beiges, whites and pastel blues punctuated with bright, saturated colors employed to articulate her geometric forms, prime our experience of the autobiographical, “Personal Codes,” which successfully merges a private, meditative practice, with a generous, external language. Systems, here, are key for an understanding of Itatani’s content, as her own explicatory formal language harmoniously permeates throughout the exhibition.
From a distance, the paintings of spaces ranging from woodsy, outdoor settings, to library interiors and astral bodies, are composed of geometric patterns in varying degrees of abstraction, both encouraging, then flattening the illusionistic space of the two-dimensional picture plane. These patterns, themselves textile-like, are a reinforced notion upon one’s closer inspection; for each form, different textures are carefully chosen: glossy drips, dry brushstrokes, impasto-like gestures, and calligraphic script and delicate, parallel lines of paint and wax deposited with a syringe. The textures function both to distinguish each shape from its neighbors, and to weave a complex, all-over, tactile surface. These textures are evident also in the silverpoint works on paper, despite the absence of the three-dimensional quality; the natures of the light washes and of the silverpoint continue Itatani’s textural language through tone, mark-making and sheen.
The silverpoint works on paper make up a small portion of the exhibition, but they contribute to this theme of “codes”; though not reducing them to sketches, these windows to the composition process illustrate how the application of Itatani’s formal language to the large-scale paintings is possible. And in addition to the information that the works on paper offer, the curation of “Personal Codes” expounds the abstract language of the paintings.
The proximity of the more representational works to the more abstracted ones—particularly in the “Moon Light/Mooring” series– spells out for viewers the subject matter from which the forms initiate– for instance the permutation of the representation of cast light from between the tree to the patterning of the abstracted geometric forms. The inherent generosity in this gesture challenges the privileging, withholding nature of abstract painting; instead of offering us only the formal concerns, Itatani reveals her motivation to retain and articulate the initial visual stimulus, the autobiographical narrative of this series of works.
The artist states, “I am dealing with the idea of fiction. I strongly believe in fiction’s ability to express the deepest truths,” which explains the peculiar utilization of abstract language to communicate personal narratives. Not only does this abolish the exclusionary, elitist position of much contemporary abstract painting, but in addition it optimistically revitalizes the capacity of the genre to address something beyond itself, a surely welcomed, long-awaited realization.
Michiko Itatani is a familiar name in Chicago art circles, and she is exhibiting new paintings at Walsh Gallery in the West Loop. She has exhibited in many solo and group exhibitions nationally and internationally over the years - including at Printworks in River North, and at the now-closed Flatfile Galleries. Her works are in many public and private collections including both the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. She currently teaches at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Itatani has been working for over 30 years, and this latest series is being called her most personal and autobiographical to-date; the aptly-named show title is Personal Codes.
The paintings are big, and mostly lightly colored, sort-of-dreamy scenarios that reflect the artist's own recent experiences, events, and thoughts on the future. Itatani is a worldly artist who draws on the many influences of places as diverse as Prague and Japan - covering the globe and exploring the East and the West. All of her experiences contribute to what interests and inspires her most, and Itatani also takes translates these personal influences in her work.
A statement about this latest show explains the two series that are part of the "diametrically conflicting personal" bodies of work:
"Hyper Baroque" and "Moon Light/Mooring." These paintings explore one's intimate desire for self-discovery both in the mental and physical realms beyond our grasp. Ms. Itatani explores psychological, cultural, sociopolitical, and historical realms to help her envision the complex realities of the 21st. century.
Michiko Itatani is on a spiritual quest, not just in her current paintings, but in the entire sequence of nine themes that have spanned forty years of her career. With titles like “Movement,” “Body,” “Self/Others” and “Micro/Macro,” she has systematically explored the natural and human world within and without. As she moved further into the new millennium, she finally left our suffering planet behind, especially in the two parts of her latest series that she calls “Personal Codes.” In one part, “Hyper Baroque,” she presents interior views of what seems to be a spaceship. The interior looks like a fantastic hotel ballroom, somewhere beyond O’Hare, but it also contains a library with sixty-foot-high bookshelves and globes for each of the planets that it has visited. All this imaginary architecture is wonderfully luminescent. Beyond that, she has envisioned what a Buddhist might recognize as the “pure land” or “Western paradise”—that empty but sacred place that has been the goal of Japanese culture since the eighth century. To stand in a room enveloped by Itatani’s wall-size gray-and-white “Moonlight/Mooring” paintings is probably as close as any of us are going to get to achieving it. Which is to say, these paintings belong in a temple rather than a living space. Almost all these paintings feature a mysterious necklace of lights that seems to indicate a supra-human presence. The evident craft in all of these productions is staggering. (Chris Miller)