TransFormal

Artist: 
Nobuo Kubota, Louise Noguchi, Naomi Yasui and Akira Yoshikawa
Date: 
June 14, 2012 to July 28, 2012

The Latcham Gallery is very excited to host TransFormal – a group exhibition with four Japanese- Canadian contemporary artists whose work touches in some way the idea of transformation.
Be sure not to miss the opening reception where Governor General Award for Visual and Media Art recipient Nobuo Kubota will offer one of his riveting performances of sound poetry. He will use the gallery itself as a resonator to share his improvised vocalizations that are guaranteed to enchant. Sculpture, photography and works on paper that relate directly to Kubota’s performance will also be on display.

Towering other-worldly forms that resemble robotic misfits are on offer from Louise Noguchi’s Shanghai Dragon series. Are they representations of out-dated visions of the future or romanticized Hollywood versions of the past? The ambiguity allows the viewer to make their own connections with these pink styrofoam giants.        

Naomi Yasui uses the gallery walls to create an alchemical apothecary with her Alchemical Vessel Series. It is a collection of 59 porcelain vessels each representing one of the 59 elements from alchemist Torber Bergman’s table of the elements, published in 1775.  Yasui believes “the nature of ceramics is a transformative experience; the process of moving a raw material through pyrotechnology is a phenomenon that can be described as magical or spiritual.”

We are very happy to welcome back Akira Yoshikawa to present new works at the Latcham Gallery.
Akira was included in our 2008, exhibition, Order/Disorder: A Sculpture Show, curated by Georgiana Uhlyarik. His poignant and mischievous interventions into the gallery space endeavour to focus our attention in the present moment. His investigations into order and chaos invite the viewer to consider the everyday materials he uses and transcend the “obsolete past or the unknown future” and experience the everyday sublime that is readily found in the here and now.

Nobuo Kubota was born in Vancouver BC. and studied architecture at U of T. As a musician he has preformed with The Artists Jazz Band as well as the improvisational orchestra known as CCMC and was a founding member of The Music Gallery in Toronto. He has performed and exhibited his work internationally in a career that has spanned over 50 years and in 2009 was the recipient of The Governors General’s Award in Visual and Media Art.

Louise Noguchi was born in Toronto ON. She received her MFA from the University of Windsor, Canada and AOCA from the Ontario College of Art in Toronto. She is a professor in the Art and Art History program, a collaborative joint program between Sheridan Institute and the University of Toronto Mississauga where she teaches photography and performance-based art. She has exhibited her work nationally and internationally.

Naomi Yasui was born in Toronto ON. She graduated from the Ontario College of Art and Design with a BDes in Material Art & Design. She is a member of The Wardens and is co-creator of The Wardens Today with Heather Goodchild.  She has exhibited her work nationally.

Akira Yoshikawa was born in Hiroshima in 1949 and immigrated to Toronto with his mother in 1961. He graduated from Ontario College of Art and Design in experimental art in 1974 and has since exhibited his work both nationally and internationally.

This exhibition is generously supported by the Ontario Arts Council and the Town of Whitchurch-Stouffville.

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The Latcham Gallery commisioned Hamilton based artist and curator Bryce Kanbara to create a short essay to accompany the exhibition. It follows here.

looking for cherry blossoms

About ten years ago, I assembled an exhibition of works by Japanese Canadian artists titled “Japanning”. The name was borrowed from the glossy lacquer from Japan used to coat wood-crafts, from small boxes to furniture. The inference was that Japaneseness could be brushed on in layers, perhaps at the expense of appreciating the underlying objects themselves which were “glossed over” for curatorial expediency. For me, curating these group exhibitions is satisfying (for their feeling of communality) and problematic (in justifying their collective artistic intent). And, because I am interested in Japanese Canadian identity, I have regarded these infrequent shows as necessary check-ups on the thinking of artists of Japanese descent.

The difficulty in discerning an ethnical link in works by Japanese Canadian artists can in many ways be traced back to the WW2 experience of Japanese Canadians. The Government of Canada’s unjust and unnecessary forced removal and internment of over 20,000 Japanese Canadians from the West Coast inculcated in them a desire to blend into society’s mainstream. In the immediate post-war years, they went to extremes to downplay the ethnicity they felt had provoked the powerful discriminatory policies that destroyed their communities, disrupted their culture and their dreams of the future. The resulting mindset among Japanese Canadians, which focused on social and economic recovery and advancement, did not readily embrace art as a viable option. The heroes of Japanese Canadian Art (if we can call it that) were a small number of remarkable second-generation nisei who went against the grain and the odds to pursue art as a way of life. Living in different parts of the country, and for a long time probably unaware of one another, Kazuo Nakamura, Roy Kiyooka, Takao Tanabe, Shizyue Takashima and Nobuo Kubota carved out individualized careers as esteemed Canadian artists.

Although these second-generation artists lived through the WW2 internment period, that experience was largely subsumed within the larger themes of their artworks. But as a teen-ager, Kazuo Nakamura had made a series of watercolour paintings of Tashme internment camp, and much later when he moved to Toronto he produced an extended series of pale-green, abstract paintings on panel which he said were based on recollections of a lake he visited for solace in the mountains near Tashme. The painter, Shizyue Takashima, wrote and illustrated a children’s book about her memories in the internationally acclaimed “A Child in a Prison Camp”.

It’s to be expected that all of these nisei, in their own ways, explored traditional Japanese culture and heritage, even though they knew that for the most part, they were not Japanese. They neither spoke nor wrote the language well. The Japanese connection, however, seems to be significant enough that references appear from time to time amid the various currents that characterize their art practices. The same may be said generally about the work of the artists in this exhibition, but the generational range here is wider and the influence of the source culture (Japanese/Japanese Canadian) even further removed.

As in all group shows, the works of these artists have been selected to create relational sparks that somehow illumine them and help us see them freshly. The mere fact that the artists have Japanese names may persuade us to examine each work with a perspective that would be absent if we viewed it within another framework. But in each instance, one may be hard-pressed to see the ethnic thread. What, then, does their placement in a Japanese Canadian grouping bring to our experience of them?

Nobuo Kubota, Louise Noguchi, Naomi Yasui and Akira Yoshikawa have distinctive art practices shaped by their individual backgrounds in the milieu of contemporary Canadian art. They were educated here; they have taught and worked at public art institutions here, and they exhibit their work regularly here. They do not identify themselves primarily as Japanese Canadian artists. From time to time (in the work of Kubota, Noguchi and Yoshikawa), specific references to things Japanese emerge as sporadic, intuitive impulses. The unanticipated manner in which they appear (or in Yasui’s case, don’t seem to appear at all) suggests the complexity of the role Japaneseness plays, and extends our reading and appreciation of each artist’s body of work.  

Nobuo Kubota’s calligraphic series – columns of inked, Asian-looking writing on paper – feature characters that are, in fact, invented by him. And his recent over-sized installation titled “Hokusai Revisited” in homage to the famous woodcut print of a giant wave is tenuously suggestive of the original work by Hokusai. For Kubota, who once spent training time in a Buddhist temple in Japan (and whose amazing history of activity also includes years playing experimental saxophone in the radical Artists Jazz Band) Japanese associations are evoked with some frequency. When he engages this theme, the work is a delightful paradox that sets his simmering interest in traditional Japanese culture against the constraints imposed by his limited ability to speak and read the language. It’s a whimsically ironic form of cultural appropriation.  

When Louise Noguchi’s mind turns to her Japanese roots, she does it with surprising drama and directness. Her video pieces accomplish this most effectively when she, as a third-generation Japanese Canadian sansei, puts herself front and centre in them -- strapped to a revolving wheel, for example, as a knife thrower flings at the negative spaces around her body. Or wearing a kimono with outstretched arms as a bull whip artist bursts flowers held in her fingers (“Crack”, 2000). In 2010, she made the film “Marker” which included narrative sequences describing the parallel symbolism of “martyrs” whose deaths are commemorated in places such as Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo and the Martyrs Shrine in Midland Ontario.

Akira Yoshikawa was born in Japan and immigrated to Canada as a young boy. His mother was a nisei and an instructor of ikebana (flower arranging). Yoshikawa’s spare, contemplative works are influenced by Buddhist philosophy, he says, and in them he combines a disciplined understanding of Japanese aesthetics with an equally alert awareness of contemporary art issues. 


Born a yonsei (fourth generation) Naomi Yasui is a generation younger than Noguchi and Yoshikawa and two generations removed from Kubota. Her father is a sansei and her mother of English descent. Yasui’s delicately-crafted work stems from her research into the early ceramic industry in Europe, and she says she’s only asked about her ancestry when people learn her surname. In the context of this exhibition, she brings a sobering, zestful presence. Her work reflects the inevitable blending, alteration and assimilation of immigrant culture. In the case of Japanese Canadians, this has happened at an accelerated pace.

petals

In 1988, “Shikata ga nai” organized by Hamilton Artists’ Inc. was meant to bring attention to the Japanese Canadian Redress campaign. The exhibition travelled across Canada and contained the work of several of the artists in the current exhibition, including Nobuo Kubota. This was his eloquent statement in the catalogue:

When I was born, I was of the Universe.
When I was five, I was the same as everybody else.
When I was eight, the war started: I was different.
During the war, I was displaced: I was a “Jap.”
In my twenties, I was Japanese Canadian. In my thirties, I was Canadian.
At forty, searching for my roots in Japan, I was Japanese.
A fifty-five, looking to see who I am, I know that it has nothing to
do with being Japanese, or Canadian…
I was right the first time…
                                    
Takao Tanabe’s wry statement in the same catalogue was acerbic, reflective of historical and ethnic suppression, and makes an outrageously intriguing rationale for the identity of Japanese Canadians.

(Canada) may be more democratic. Still it is not free of negative opinions and prejudice. I quote from an old article as a reminder of the kind of attitude that was pervasive when I was growing up. It’s no wonder we were disliked.

The Japanese are … “probably the most compulsive people in the world ethnological museum”. Nineteen basic traits of the compulsive personality are these: “secretiveness, hiding of emotions and attitudes; perseveration and persistency; conscientiousness; self-righteousness; a tendency to project attitudes; fanaticism; arrogance; ‘touchiness’; precision and perfectionism; neatness and ritualistic cleanliness; ceremoniousness; conformity to rule; sadomasochistic behaviour; hypochondriasis; suspiciousness; jealousy and enviousness; pedantry; sentimentality; love of scatological obscenity and anal sexuality.”

Those observations about the Japanese character structure were made after observation as “community analyst” among Japanese Americans in a relocation camp by Weston La Barre, anthropologist, in a famous article published in August 1945.
There you are, it describes me perfectly.

The works selected for this exhibition may or may not substantiate any of the above discussion. Nonetheless, a glimpse into the sociological and psychological backgrounds from where they emerge may provide alternative perspectives for the curious viewer to ponder.

Bryce Kanbara (June 10, 2012)


Bryce Kanbara, is a visual artist/curator and proprietor of you me gallery in Hamilton.