East meets West and circles back to East again in the prints and paintings of Ikuko Nagai.
Born and raised in Japan, her early training in art was, of course, traditional for that era. When Iku and her husband Mas emigrated to the United States after World War II and settled in San Mateo, she was exposed to European and American modern art. She chose cubism as a way to break from her past and explore form and substance from a culturally different - basically European - perspective.
Her 1999 retrospective exhibition at the Triton Museum presented Iku’s life in art, and the exhibition catalog provides an excellent summation (available free from PMA).
The 1999 exhibition occurred just as Iku began her final body of work, circling back to her cultural roots. A few of these new prints were shown in the Triton Museum exhibition. However, most of the work produced by Iku since 1999 has never been shown before.
This celebration of Iku Nagai the artist is installed in three galleries: early work in South Gallery, mid-career in Decker A Gallery, and the most recent paintings and prints in Decker B Gallery. Very few of the artworks are dated, however, so precise arrangement by date was impossible.
“. . . circling back to her cultural roots” refers to the monotypes that present ink drawings directly related to the drawings on scrolls from the Eleventh and early Twelfth Centuries. Four scrolls, up to 12 feet long, have been preserved in the Kozan-ji Templein Kyoto, Japan. At least the first two scrolls were created by the Buddhist monk Kakuyu (1053 – 1140, known as the abbot Toba-Sojo), and many of Iku’s prints specifically state (Homage to Toba-Sojo) in pencil on the back.
These stylized drawings of animals, mostly rabbits and frogs acting as humans, tell stories.
The logical analogy is, of course, the stained-glass windows, paintings, and sculpture of European cathedrals. Artists were essential to all pre-literate cultures, recording history and teaching customs. One good example is “Welcome” on the back wall of the Decker B Gallery which (in our opinion) illustrates proper hospitality.
For further information, search for Choju-Giga, considered the origin of the still-popular Manga style of drawing and cartooning. Although the drawings have the appearance of pen-and-ink, they are actually drawn with very fine brushes.
Iku Nagai used multiple techniques to produce her art: painting in mineral pigments she ground herself, gold and silver leaf, water color, etching, drawing, monotype, woodblock, monoprint, and chine colle. Although most of the artworks are prints, you will note that nearly all are unique; very few were created in editions.
Prelude to Vernation
Iku Nagai: "(I have) always tried to encourage and adopt the influence of Western Art. Most established Japanese painters depict art as symbolic stage-like settings and allegorical scenes, expressively arranged in traditional format. My goal was to explore the technical innovation and modernization of Japanese art, and to amalgamate the influence of conventional Japanese teaching. Through this approach, I worked to convey my personal aesthetic sensitivity."
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