118 N. Peoria St., 2nd Floor, Chicago, IL 60607
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.”
Michiko Itatani. Personal Codes. 2009. Image courtesy of the Walsh Gallery.
"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.
Michiko Itatani. Cosmic Wanderlust. 2009. Image courtesy of Walsh Gallery.
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.)