Two Cultures, One Spirit Japan/Wisconsin

by Lynn Zetzman

Insights, by Sophia Amm
The following article was originally written for The Scene, a monthly newspaper distributed in the Fox Valley region.

Recently the Wisconsin Painters and Sculptors hosted the two cultures one spirit Wisconsin/Japan art exchange. There were exhibits and events at the Neville Public Museum of Brown County and in the Baer Gallery/Bush Art Center, at St Norbert College (two venues in the Madison area and two venues in the Milwaukee area that simultaneously participated as well. The logistics of mounting a six site international art exchange had to have been daunting and illicit respect for Pat and Lee Holt, who spearheaded the endeavor. Their muse was born of cultural exchanges experienced through the Madison based International Friendship Force, but the event is fueled by the time and energy of volunteers from Wisconsin Painters & Sculptors on the US side and volunteers with Japan on the Road from the Japanese side.

Japan had closed itself to the outside world for two centuries allowing only a few Dutch and Chinese traders at select ports before the American Commodore Perry arrived in 1853 and negotiated a treaty to open up the country for foreigners. The affect of this event on artists of both eastern and western cultures was tremendous and continues to the present day. Perhaps the most famous of the late 19th century artists who borrowed from the exotic visuals crossing over the cultural divide were Vincent Van Gogh in the west, and Yumeji Takehisa in Japan. So successful has the visual sharing been that when an educated pedestrian in east central Wisconsin visited the local exchange sites it would have been hard for them in most cases to determine which culture the contemporary artists had come from without reading the name cards.

With that said… were there some stereotypic generalities that presented themselves after one had determined which culture the artists in “Two Cultures, One Spirit” represented? The Japanese work seemed to dominate the local spaces, being in many cases physically larger than the Wisconsin artists work. It could also be said that abstraction and materials orientation were a main focus of many of the Japanese artists while a literal concern attracted many of the Wisconsin artists.

The openings were very festive events with artists demonstrating their techniques and even offering opportunities for those attending the openings to try their hands at making something. I marbled a cotton scarf with Minoru Ishihara at the Neville opening and was very touched to be given materials, instruction, and an unusual take home souvenir.

The Neville opening was also graced with a fashion show presented by Fumiko Nozaki, a Japanese oil painter turned clothing designer. I was immediately taken by the men and women in her elegant ensembles as they mixed with others at the opening. There were 25 complete outfits modeled at the opening. Fumiko Nozaki wants to create “Kimono” for a new age. The traditional kimono is difficult to don by oneself. Most younger Japanese women can not wear a kimono without help dressing. These contemporary “kimono” takes were made of elegant brocades, hand dyed fabrics, sheer crinkled silks, rich solid jewel colors contrasting complex patterns, much as their traditional ancestors, but their forms were more varied and each texture was not a separate piece of the ensemble but attached as a collar, yoke, cuff, or other integrated feature.

It was as if some royal court from the east or maybe even Princess Amidala’s entourage had suddenly landed in Green Bay! But I don’t want to suggest that these were Halloween costumes either- they were clothes for sophisticated urban parties on either side of the world. Fumiko Nozaki’s short, shiny, silver white hair was all the more glorious framed by the high full gathered collared jacket she chose to wear herself for the event. Fumiko Nozaki was not from Tokyo as one might suspect. She is from the Island of Kyushu. I applauded her bold venture, her daring to be stunning.

Lee Holt’s small ceramic relief titled “Milwaukee Area at Depth” at St. Norbert College is a subtle exploded view of geological concern. The top fourth of the piece recalls the large cloud field paintings of Georgia O’Keefe and though the scale is much smaller it is no less monumental. There is a slim ribbon representing the surface which is tipped upright forty-five degrees so that we are looking down as in an aerial view. Lake Michigan is indicated by a fingernail sized sliver of blue at the far right which gives way to the city. Skyscrapers are represented by the tiniest geometric forms that lessen in height and density for an illusion of suburbs. The ‘burbs give way to an occasional farm here and there which run for about three quarters of the surface ribbon. The bottom two thirds of the piece represent the shifted rock strata in straight forward cross section that lie below the surface. These rock strata of different color and texture along with the sky make the tipped surface section seem small and inconsequential. This piece gives a feeling similar to the one of smallness experienced swimming in the ocean with the added understanding of how vast geological time is.

Minoru Ishihara’s work at the Neville also plays with scale. His “Spirit Garden” consists of nine panels of silk worked in layers. The silk is a loose open weave first dyed with a traditional Japanese paste resist pattern of stacked circles. The background behind the stacked circles changes in the longer panels from deep green/blue at the base, become purple, and finally morph into red. Over the top of this initial highly controlled pattern is a layer of marbled rainbow colors. In some ways the color recalls a magical sunset with many suns. The arrangement of 3 panels approximately 4 feet in height, then three eight foot panels, followed by 3 panels again 4 feet in height, creates the silhouette of a giant wall kimono perhaps 14 feet across. The viewer is bathed in a wash of soothing mostly warm color. This is a piece for a large public space.

Sophia Amm has work at both venues. Her piece at the Neville is, like Ishihara’s a large work, but without the calming presence. It is a theatrical back lit wall of transparencies many of which are x-rays. The images are placed tight together much like a patchwork quilt. First you are invited inside the body to view bones, cavities, inner workings. Then you are jolted back out of interior space for a visual tour of grand European architectural features presented in small scale… nice tourist photographs. On the floor are three white pillows. On each pillow is a white cast of a woman’s forearm and hand. Each hand holds an object, a dried lotus flower, a bird’s nest, a passport. There was no artist’s statement to explain these juxtapositions, only mystery and the sense that perhaps they represented a full life. The rich black, whites, and light blues, lit as they were, glowed. As I was left with many questions as to the relationships between the person(s) represented and the spaces shown I again felt small and insignificant as I had in the presences of the last two works described. Journeys of generations of humanity, nature, geological formations, if one takes time with these works of art they really are able to pull you outside of yourself- remind you of larger “pictures.”

To have an intimate experience with artworks one needs to spend quiet time with them. Openings are usually festive and noisy but insights can be cultivated by discussions with artists as happened by a chat with Japanese architect Hiroo Manuya. Artworks by fifty eight artists were/are represented in these shows and the artists were out in force at the openings. The Japanese paid for the shipping of their work and all their travel expenses. American artists hosted the Japanese artists with home stays. Several of the Japanese artists were present at the Neville opening.

Hiroo Maruya’s architectural model displayed a commitment to integrating exterior and interior spaces. Americans may be most familiar with this idea from works like Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings. His Fallingwater home in western Pennsylvania which was built to incorporate a waterfall is a dramatic expression of this. The Japanese have been intrigued with this concept for centuries. Tea Houses built expressly for the tea ceremony have always opened onto gardens. The recently opened Museum of 21st Century Art in Kanazawa/Japan commissioned several artists to design spaces with exterior/interior integration. The sixty three year old American installation artist James Turrell has work in that collection. Japan is crowded and homes are built close together. A three foot square exterior garden can offer the illusion of a larger one when a window hugs the floor and stops knee high- I have observed this visual trick in both Japanese homes and restaurants. Maruya played with more exterior space and included a water feature. I loved his flat thin clear plastic cookie cutter human forms that inhabited his model.

Valley artist Steve Ballard had work at both local exhibitions. Valley residents may be familiar with his funky recycling of found objects from past shows at other local venues. It is always nice to have a body of work to reference when viewing art. The Neville displayed a functional “portable” weathervane/chime and the St. Norbert gallery a playful nonfunctional sculpture. At first glace both these works appear to be industrial chromed products. Closer inspection starts to reveal their recycled character. The revelation of finding the crutch, the hubcap, the spatula, etc., is delightful. The overall composite forms have fine proportions and numerous layers of patterning. I loved the larger than life robotic hand whose finger tips are liquor pour spouts titled “Fountain of Youth.” I wanted to start creating a magical elixir immediately knowing it would taste great even if results would be questionable.

Members of the Wisconsin Painters and Sculptors will have an opportunity to ship works to Japan and experience home stays with Japanese artists around the future exhibition opening period in the fourth installment of this commendable exchange. As a community the Fox Cities are fortunate to have had this third installment of these exhibitions in their backyard.

Lynn Zetzman is currently Fine Arts Department Head at Xavier High school in Appleton, WI. She has traveled to Japan as part of the Japan Fulbright Memorial Fund/Master Teacher Program. Zetzman has exhibited internationally and is represented by the Ann Nathan Gallery in Chicago.