VIDEO: John Solt on Avant Garde “Plastic Poetry” from Japan

August 14, 2013

We recently interviewed scholar, poet, and collector John Solt in the Pavilion for Japanese Art, about the extraordinary exhibition Kitasono Katue: Surrealist Poet, currently on view. Soft-spoken and modest, Solt nevertheless attracted a small crowd of enthused visitors during our interview, as his passion for Kitasono’s work (Solt is the author of Shredding the Tapestry of Meaning: The Poetry and Poetics of Kitasono Katsue, among other books) was palpable to all who overheard him.

Solt, a long-time advisor to our Japanese Art department, was perceptibly pleased with the installation at LACMA, accomplished through the deft work of curator Hollis Goodall and our design department, who labored to achieve a modernist aesthetic consistent with Kitasono’s own leanings. (Even the takeaway exhibition brochure is designed as a kind of fold-out paper sculpture, reflective of Kitasono’s aesthetic.)

Brochure accompanying Kitasono Katue: Surrealist Poet

Brochure accompanying Kitasono Katue: Surrealist Poet

Brochure accompanying Kitasono Katue: Surrealist Poet

Brochure accompanying Kitasono Katue: Surrealist Poet

In our interview, Solt talked about Kitasono’s “day job” as the librarian for a dental college, the radical nature of his poetry, the political oppression by the “thought police” that he endured during  World War II, and his far-reaching influence on other poets and artists. He also reflected on the pure pleasure of seeing great works of modern visual and linguistic poetry by Kitasono installed adjacent to masterpieces of Japanese art from previous centuries, in the contemplative atmosphere of the Pavilion.

Kitasono Katsue: Surrealist Poet is on view through December 1st.

Amy Heibel, video by Alexa Oona Schulz

Messages from a Fragile World: Washi Tales

September 20, 2011

On Thursday night, paper artist Ibe Kyoko and curator Hollis Goodall will discuss the current exhibition Washi Tales: The Paper Art of Ibe Kyoko, followed by a special, not-to-be-missed performance based on Ibe’s work, featuring actors and an ensemble of musicians playing traditional Japanese instruments. Below, Goodall provides insight into Ibe’s work. More information on Thursday’s event can be found here.

A piece of the world was wiped away on March 11 of this year. In the northeastern area of Honshu, the main island of Japan, what is left to us after earthquake and tsunami is bits of lives that were.

For the last ten years, the washi (Japanese paper) artist Ibe Kyoko has incorporated bits of former lives in the form of torn pieces of letters and documents into her works of art. Following the earthquake and tsunami, Ibe-san’s thoughts turned to her family members and ancestors who lived in Fukushima, and to her aging mother who had come from that region. Reaching into her family’s home altar (butsudan), Ibe-san pulled out family documents dating back over 100 years. From her personal files came letters brushed on beautiful paper from her parents and close relatives, and letters in English from friends. These became the material and stimulus for her present series, called Once Upon a Time, of which several works are on display in the Pavilion for Japanese Art. Ibe-san made the first work of the series for her mother’s home. At LACMA, the largest of the pieces from the series in the gallery has the characters for “mother” and “father” displayed prominently amid the parts of documents and letters now bound into the surface of the new paper art work.

Ibe Kyoko, Four untitled works from the series “Once Upon a Time,” 2011, recycled ganpi paper fiber, old documents, mica, indigo and sumi, collection of the artist

It was a decade ago that Ibe-san went to a used book store and brought home a handwritten census from a town no longer to be found on a map. She became inspired to bring the recorded fragments of information about these forgotten souls into her works of art. How that town disappeared is a mystery, perhaps caused more by economics than natural disaster. That so many people and their town had virtually evaporated from history but for this document that she chanced upon struck her deeply. Their lives began to re-appear a small piece at a time in the surfaces of her artworks. The series called Hogosho (writings on scratch paper) recalls her early concepts about working with recycled texts.

Ibe Kyoko, Untitled, from the series “Hogosho,” 2008, recycled ganpi paper fiber, old documents, mica and sumi, collection of the artist

Sitting in a screen mounter’s studio one day, she noticed that scratch paper reused by the mounter to provide backing for the painting on a screen would begin to peek out from tears in the painted surface or backing paper as the screen aged. She became fascinated with the screen mounting itself as being a time capsule. Old records, inventories, cash receipts, or memos socked into the interior of a screen for support, as old Japanese paper is still strong and useful, represented life at the moment that the screen was being mounted. Japanese paper, most commonly sourced from the inner bark of the paper mulberry (kozo), though in Ibe-san’s case taken from antique paper originally made from the bark of the ganpi bush (a plant of the Daphne family), is both durable because of its long fibers and valuable as the plants from which they come grow relatively slowly. As such, paper has always been valued and reused. Though she refers to her works as “recycled” paper, the lives denoted upon them are in a way resurrected.

Ibe Kyoko in her Kyoto studio placing document bits to be mixed with glue and ganpi paper fiber on a paper-making screen. Photo provided by Ibe Kyoko

The power of nature is so often beyond what people can control. Harnessing that power is part of Ibe-san’s expression. Having laid bits of documents, chips of mica, flakes of gold or silver, recycled indigo paper, and other precious materials onto the paper screen, she then begins to apply paper pulp behind that surface. As she adds layers and layers of various colored pulps of recycled paper behind those, some dense with calligraphy so they take on the color of gray sumi, others pink from the vermillion of seals used to sign a document, colors merge onto the surface and fibers bind with the elements already applied. Layer upon layer of pulp is added with great quantities of water, and Ibe-san relinquishes control, allowing the water to rearrange paper fibers and draw pulp into various patterns. The power of water and the strength of plants inspire this work, while the people whose writings are merged into her paper she feels to be living again through traces of their words.

Hollis Goodall, curator, Japanese Art

A Tale of Two Narratives

September 9, 2010

On view in the Pavilion for Japanese Art is a summer kimono, known as a yukata—a cotton plain weave kimono worn both by men and women, which evolved from a bathing robe. Printed in woodcut on this kimono is the acclaimed novelist Jippensha Ikku’s nineteenth century masterpiece, Hizakurige (meaning “journey on foot”). The garment is covered in a hundred and ten or so individual woodcuts that depict the humorous and lusty adventures of the two madcap characters, Yaji and Kita, as they travel on Tokaido Road, from Edo (Tokyo) to Kyoto.

Summer Kimono (Yukata) with Illustrations from the 180 novel ‘Hizakurige’ (Shank’s Mare) by Ikku Jipensha (1765–1831), Edo period, early 19th century, Costume and Textiles Deaccession Fund

The scenes are beautifully spaced and ironically, one is unable to establish the beginning, not that it’s necessary. The garment could well represent a time of this late Edo period where the populace was allowed to search for enjoyment, which became known as ukiyo (the floating world). It was a time when the arts flourished in all forms: music, popular stories, puppet theater, and literature. Tourism was the rage. It was the world of inns and teahouses and festivals. Beautiful woodcuts were very popular, thus one can imagine the joy of following the vividly animated two Buster Keaton-like characters on the kimono as they comically pratfall from one scenario to another, while making the journey oneself.

Detail, Summer Kimono (Yukata) with Illustrations from the 180 novel ‘Hizakurige’ (Shank’s Mare) by Ikku Jipensha (1765–1831), Edo period, early 19th century, Costume and Textiles Deaccession Fund

In the retrospective Pure Beauty —closing this weekend—John Baldessari’s narrative is a many splendored thing, to borrow an expression. Here in Duchampian voodoo, the very narrative itself is the game, the foil, the silent film hero or dangling participle, the malapropism; or it’s on the make, mendacious and coy, cunning and yet beautiful in its geometric melodrama of black frames like a femme fatale; and, of course, it’s fun and games.

Not unlike his nineteenth-century counterpart, Baldessari represents his time and the collective fissure that says so much about living in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. To quote him; “I stopped trying to be an artist as I understood it and attempted to talk to them in the language they understood.” Of course this is only slightly disingenuous, for sometimes he achieves the “full Monty,” revealing our foibles and narcissistic dreams. Ultimately Baldessari’s prescient art captures our ad-enriched, Hollywood soaked, media-choked mixed messages with its amusement, its meaning scrambled or hidden in puzzles or laying in wait to be scratched out or searched within other images. Russell Ferguson suggested as much with his perceptive essay title in the book for the exhibition, “Unreliable Narrator.”

John Baldessari, “Hope (Blue) Supported by a Bed of Oranges (Life): Amid a Context of Allusions,” 1991, Tate, purchased with assistance from the American Fund for the Tate Gallery and Tate Members 2004, © 2009 John Baldessari, photo © Tate, London, 2009

And yet for us, having been so well trained, some of the work has lost its wow factor, which ironically exists in a time and a reality that most suits its expression, the digital age. Nevertheless, Baldessari’s inventive and ceaseless energy drives his narratives—enticing and alluring and unsparingly humorous. In that way it reminds me of Jippensha Ikku’s narrative. Though the author’s portrayed narrative on the surface seems simple, the world one senses from the garment is a world of freedom, joy, a kind of cultural play, unselfconsciously delighted in and savored.

Hylan Booker

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