Pieces of the Puzzle | Art Review | Chicago Reader

Pieces of the Puzzle 

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Ray Yoshida

at the Chicago Cultural Center, through August 23

Robin Starbuck

at ARC, through August 1

By Fred Camper

When I ask artists schooled in Chicago about influences, Ray Yoshida's name comes up often. An instructor at the School of the Art Institute since 1959, he's taught such Imagists as Roger Brown and Barbara Rossi and many other more recent artists. His own restrained, even hermetic art is seldom on view, however, so the retrospective of 88 paintings, drawings, and collages at the Chicago Cultural Center is most welcome. They reveal originality and vision but also make it apparent why his work isn't more popular. Neither pretty nor especially entertaining, they're not clearly "about" anything--indeed, some aren't traditionally composed pictures at all.

Most of the collages are made of fragments from comic books and comic strips, often cut to be unidentifiably abstract, destroying any hint of narrative. But arranged in rows as they often are, these bits are like lines of text--untranslatable pictograms that hint at a person or object while rarely revealing a face, a whole limb, or a location.

Most of the collages have an organizing motif. The 1969 Comic Book Specimen #15 offers repeated images of the same unidentified superhero, his head always replaced with an arm or leg--Yoshida's witty hint that this guy is all action and no brains. Speech balloons show an arm or a foot saying macho things like "Bah! I could do that with my pinky," while balloons pointing to abstract fragments or empty space express fear or confusion: "Y-yipe" or "What's going on?" At the center of the gridlike array is a larger cutout of the superhero, but this has an effect opposite to what one might expect: like Yoshida's other images, this one has no real center. A conventional painting has points around which the composition pivots, centers that exist in tension with every other part of the image. But Yoshida's large image of the hero has no dynamic relationship to the other fragments; he's merely another item in the collection. Related to Yoshida's democratic, antihierarchical approach is his refusal to assign meaning. His "false centers" and suggestive fragments encourage diverse interpretations while denying any single organizing principle.

One of the most compelling of Yoshida's early paintings here, the 1974 Questionable Structures, gains some of its power from the title's comment on the imagery. None of the forms arranged in five lines is recognizable, though they suggest buildings, roadways, hills, part of a figure, perhaps a penis. Each is bordered by heavy black lines, but not on all sides; one feels the absence of line as a tear, as if these forms were damaged or incomplete. Even more than the collages, these forms sit at the edge of suggestiveness--but they're "questionable" because they lack the completion and definition of real "structures." Quiet, blank, almost mute, they play several roles--at one extreme they're the doodles of an artist who doesn't quite believe in himself, and at the other they're body parts just hacked off in some horror-movie mayhem.

A more intensely colored series painted between 1980 and 1985 provided me with an answer to these riddles--or so I thought. Its human figures have faces this time, though they reveal little expression, and their gender and size suggest nuclear families. These pictures too lack compositional focus: the figures just stand there, forming no intelligible relationship to one another or to the space. An allover pattern of small colored dots and marks continues through their bodies--a kind of demented pointillism that supplies a busy surface and undercuts the figures' authority. As in much of the earlier work, the space is tight, constricted, even claustrophobic. The figure I took as the mother in Miraculous Matriarch (1980) has long arms that fold back on themselves several times, extending upward and sideways to suggest a scary, snakelike overreaching. Even though she and the dad appear to be clothed, their pubic hair and the father's penis are clearly visible. The three kids, one of whom is a bit taller than Dad, are shown in profile, revealing the two boys' bulging crotches. In two places, the figures seem to bump against each other, though neither seems cognizant of that fact.

False Front (1983) is even more dramatic. Mostly orange and red, it shows a mom, a dad, and a taller but much thinner son. There are also shapes floating around, partly outlined in black, that are similar enough to the figures to suggest detached body parts. And dismembered children can be read as metaphors for the psychic violence an abusive family inflicts on the emerging self. I found myself considering the possibility of a masked drama, whether autobiographical or fictional, of the family as a psychosexual prison. An identity too horrible to admit might explain the absent or blank faces in many other pictures, the suggestions of torn forms, the denial of meaning.

But Yoshida assured me that no great traumas happened within his family. At the same time, he tells a powerful story of cultural violence done to a child's identity. Yoshida was born in Hawaii in 1930; his father and his mother's parents were Japanese emigres, coming from an area near Hiroshima. He had a large family, and there wasn't much culture in his home, but one of his friends came from a wealthier Chinese family and Yoshida always felt welcome at their house, where he saw paintings, Chinese vases, and art magazines and heard classical music. After December 7, 1941, however, Yoshida found his identity in question. He considered himself an American and grew up speaking English, but he looked Japanese. He remembers the Buddhist priests who'd been teaching him the Japanese language being "sent away somewhere." He felt "confused about the United States fighting Japan, my father's country. We would see films about 'Japs' being shot and hear 'The only good Jap is a dead Jap.'

"I favored America most of the time but also had sympathy for Japan. All this propaganda affected me--I'm very conscious about race even today." Moving to Chicago in 1950 to attend the School of the Art Institute, Yoshida felt himself accepted within the school but discriminated against outside it: anti-Japanese feelings still ran high. Though today Yoshida feels securely American, he remembers his World War II experiences as "somewhat traumatic psychologically. I'm considered a good teacher, but I don't have much self-confidence. I'm hypercritical--I don't think I'm very good."

He recalls a host of other influences as well as his "kind of guilt feeling about being Japanese." He played in the sea in Hawaii and cites rocks rising above its flat surface as a source for his flat-bottomed enigmatic forms. Some mountains had names that anthropomorphized their shapes--the Sleeping Giant, for example--suggesting a human dimension to abstract forms. And like many of his students and colleagues, he was influenced by popular culture and outsider art, in particular Joseph Yoakum's fantasy landscapes. Classes with Kathleen Blackshear at the School of the Art Institute were important because she gave non-Western traditions the same importance as European art. She would take classes to the Field Museum's art collections, for example, and say, "Today we're going to draw as many different kinds of eyes as you can see." Today Yoshida speculates that these "inventory pages" influenced his later compositions and collages. Similar collections cut from comic books led him to make the larger collages that begin this show, marking a break from the abstract painting he'd been doing.

But none of this background information accounts for the dark self-abnegation of Yoshida's work, the theme of identity concealed or lost--the way he chooses "mystery and deferral, obfuscation and delay," as James Yood writes in his excellent catalog essay. The subtle drama of Yoshida's work lies in the way his forms barely assert themselves, then seem ready to disappear into his allover patterns. The aptly titled Mute (1991) has a window shape at its center crossed by horizontal bars, hinting at a jail. But it can't really be read as a window because of the black and white splotches within it, suggesting neither depth nor flatness, transparency nor opaque surface. The fragmentary shapes around it are even less representational; the final effect is of brooding silence.

Finding neither reconizable objects nor meaning in Yoshida's larger designs--when there are figures, the faces are blank or expressionless--one turns to the smaller patterns, the splotches and dots filling every square inch. Here, there often is a kind of drama: dots seem to crowd against each other dynamically, placed just close enough and just irregularly enough to create a kind of tension. The dots that are actually touching or are uncomfortably close to one another are an analogue to the crowded space of the larger forms; the works' true subject is an abstract, nonreferential claustrophobia, an almost choking unexplained clutter that threatens identity and existence.

The recent paintings that conclude this exhibit, however, introduce a curious exhilaration. Horizontal rows of forms return but are flattened almost into lines, suggesting speed--shapes rushing by. The eye is encouraged to move quickly too, not to look for meanings that won't be found. Some forms suggest cars or clouds or both, sometimes slightly compressed into wiggles as if by a collision. Most remarkable, the space of works like Scramble and Scamper (both from 1997) is open and free, suggesting a characteristically American celebration of pure movement.

Some sort of family trauma seems to inform most of Robin Starbuck's 21 works at ARC. She partially embeds wooden dollhouse parts in resin cast to resemble thick plate glass, creating small domestic compositions distressed by other elements. In many she burns the wood, which leaves it charred and a large smoke stain on the resin. Since the resin is clear and relatively smooth, these stains stand out even more than smoke marks on buildings. In Blind Fire, one of three tiny wooden blinds is stained by smoke; one of the two chimneys in Chimney Fire has been stained, the marks standing out against its plain white surface. Whereas Yoshida's patterns deflect attention from his larger forms, Starbuck's dark, smoky areas are set off by her clean compositions. The strength of her work is its directness; the evidence of an actual fire gives these pieces a vivid immediacy and vital connection to life.

Starbuck's home never burned, she told me, but her father was so obsessed with "fire readiness" that "he had special ladders for all of us in our rooms, to get us out." Born in 1957, she grew up in eastern Long Island; she now lives in Georgia, where she moved after getting her MFA from the School of the Art Institute in 1992. She recalls her upper-middle-class childhood as "perfect and horrible at the same time," describing her mother as aggressive and erratic, changing from day to day. She found reading Freud helpful because he argues that "you can have a response to something that may be located in a tiny moment." But her work isn't strictly autobiographical; working as a baby-sitter in other middle-class homes, she noticed homemakers' obsessions with cleanliness and their unrealistic fears of break-ins.

Gated Community: Forced Entry shows two identical doors, one of which has been jimmied; the rough break in the frame reveals darker wood beneath the white paint. In a sense this small contrast is just as dramatic as the smoke stains, and indeed Starbuck often contrasts architectural regularity with the chaotic shapes produced by smoke or sheared-off wood.

Starbuck cites Jeff Koons as an influence, and she admires pre-Columbian art, whose figurative sculpture often gives great visual power to some small area of the subject. In the same way Starbuck's organic "spots" disrupt the clean lines and surfaces she establishes. Dirt Yard confronts suburban preoccupations with cleanliness and perfection: a huge fuzzy area of dirt is embedded in the resin under a white picket fence. Again Starbuck opposes dark forms and white or clear ones, recalling Freud's primal dirt--feces.

Starbuck also addresses more general issues of order and disorder, particularly the way order falsifies. Printed on the resin of Born To--one of several pieces that incorporate phrases from Maurice Blanchot's The Writing of the Disaster--is "The Horror / The Honor / The Name." Printed off to the side is "The Title," superimposed over a baby picture. The very act of naming is both an honor and a horror, compartmentalizing and thus falsifying the complexity of human existence. Ray Yoshida might well agree.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): "False Front" by Ray Yoshida; "Dirt Yard" by Robin Starbuck.

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