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Thomas McCormick Gallery
Miyoko Ito's paintings, varied as they so often are, reveal their creator as a subtle, gentle-hearted and sensitive painter. A question which inevitably comes forth is to ask were they always so, and how they came to be. (As if one could trace a person's very self -- their birth and growth; and as if it lies revealed in their artistic works, as -- in the case of the best -- it often does). "MIYOKO ITO: Mistress of the Sea: Early Works From The Estate" is the nearest answer to any such reflections. The answer, as always, lies in the art. "MIYOKO ITO: Mistress of the Sea: Early Works From The Estate" opened June 2 at Thomas McCormick Gallery, 835 West Washington Boulevard, Chicago, and will run through July 1, 2000. The 15 oils on canvas, four lithographs and three watercolors in "Mistress of the Sea," in their grace of form and nuance of tone, seem like visions from Edward Lear's "beautiful pea-green boat." Why is this exhibition so pleasurable; and at the same time so important?
The paintings in this showing cover works from the mid 40s to the 50s, and even an Untitled from circa 1960. Dennis Adrian, an excellent, no-nonsense and articulate art critic, noted: "The 1950's is the decade in which Ito's painting evolves the directions and forms which we now regard as characteristically hers." That is true, and it points to the importance of this showing. But, beyond words, "MIYOKO ITO: Mistress of the Sea" is a profound pleasure -- and that rests in her art.
This exhibition offers visitors an opportunity to view seminal paintings: paintings executed at a time when the artist found her voice, a profound and moving voice. Res ipse loquitur... The thing speaks for itself.... And it speaks with a disarming, gentle strength.
Specifically... Everything is in the art. It is difficult to review an artist who has achieved so much; and of whom intelligent, perceptive critics have already written. Miyoko Ito is dead; her art maintains its charm and powers -- and will -- and what has been excellently noted need only be seconded. There is an excellent, succinct essay on Miyoko Ito by Dennis Adrian in Miyoko Ito: A Review (The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago: 1980). Furthermore, Art in Chicago: 1945-1995, (Thames & Hudson/Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago: 1996) also records a biographic overview of the artist: Sixty-five years of creative intensity -- all there in a single column. Thomas McCormick Gallery now offers an excellent catalogue of "MIYOKO ITO: Mistress of the Sea" for fifteen dollars. This showing offers so much beyond this....
What immediately strikes the visitor? Dennis Adrian's summation is an excellent guide. Adrian observes, firstly: "The areas of color are relatively unmodified"; and then: "the matte surfaces are stroked in uniform touches...," adding: "...these strokes do not lead the eye in long runs but instead act cumulatively to form a dappled texture." Adrian's essay comments, thirdly: "By the overlapping of shapes and the very careful adjustment of related tones and hues, shapes emerge and recede relative to one another without ever disturbing the stable arrangement of their disposition as areas over the surface of the picture...."
Construction, an oil on canvas (59"x49":1955) presents the artist already at full achievement. The weight of this composition holds the lower two thirds of the canvas, but a strong vertical at image right breaks away to the top canvas edge. This latter element offers a counterweight to two conspicuous elliptical forms -- a blackish grey one left of image center; and a light blue ellipse which rests below and which is punctuated by a central diamond shape. Both elliptical forms are encompassed within a circular flow of composition built up from synchronized geometric contours. The grouping evokes a human form bending toward the viewer, a form sheltering or perhaps attending to the lower light blue ellipse -- something like an image of maternal love, or fraternal compassion.
That the inspiration for Construction began with a representational nucleus is as certain as the magicality of its final synthesis. Ito was an admirer of Cezanne early in her career, and Adrian notes qualities in her development which reveal "what she absorbed from the masters of Synthetic Cubism such as Gris, Braque and Picasso," particularly from tendencies in the 1920s. But Ito's paintings never seem declamative or rationalistic; nor do they call conspicuous attention to her visual or intellectual analysis or procedure. A viewer first and foremost experiences the painting -- it is an immediate effect. Categorizations of how it does so, the "-isms," arise as a critical afterthought, if they arise at all. There are no manifestos. In 1942, Miyoko Ito received her BA from the University of California, Berkeley. Staci Boris notes that "she had seen Picasso's first larger-scale retrospective while at college in Berkeley." (Art in Chicago: 1945-1995.) Ito had assimilated what she found of interest in other artists early on, and quickly went her own way. She arrived in Chicago in 1944 and accepted a graduate scholarship at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her palette continued to change, and, what Adrian called "figurational allusions," grew more complex. Adrian even noted in the 70s: "intricate suggestions of 'picture within a picture' constructions," developing out of earlier explorations by the artist. "MIYOKO ITO: Mistress of the Sea" fascinates for what it reveals of Ito's artistic evolution.
In the traditional formulations of 'Modernism,' art critics make finer points about 'Analytic Cubism' (Breaking down of forms), and 'Synthetic Cubism' (Renewed attention to color and handling), and 'Orphisim' (An often curvilinear abandonment to the artist's 'pure' imagination). "MIYOKO ITO: Mistress of the Sea" demonstrates Ito's primary commitment above all to painting, rather than theorization. Her work often ranges in and between the trends -- none of the above: it stands highly individual and distinctive. If in Construction, there is a serpentine flow to the composition, in Captured (c.1952) a viewer meets with a more regimented, staccato pulse to the interaction of the forms and contours. The most conspicuous fusiform in Captured echoes the animate creature -- be it fish, porpoise, or swimmer. Here, the darker hued elements aggregate and cohere in a dry-dock schema of 'a day's catch,' while what appears to be a gaff rests severed and shifted below it. Captured conveys an open sense of immobility, even rigor mortis; anticipatory hook and anticipated victim, all set in trophy display. Ito's cool palette evokes depths and suspension of objects. It displays the qualities in Ito's work to which Dennis Adrian called attention: "the overlapping of shapes and the very careful adjustment of related tones and hues"; their alternate emergence and recession among each other; and all this within a stable arrangement on the flat canvas.
Step by Step (1962) presages the brighter, burgeoning hues and lines of contour which Dennis Adrian observed as typifying Ito's subsequent evolution. Adrian noted: "Toward the end of the 60's Ito's palette brightens with the introduction of hot reds and yellows and wonderfully reverberating clear greens and blues which often shade away into hues and tones of empyrean lightness." Step by Step strikes one as a painterly invention; there is in it something of the subliminal dream-like vision of a Paul Klee, or of a whimsical phantasy. The eye follows as conjoined contours merge and again bud into further forms -- a Platonist quality which is shared by plants, medusae, all life-forms which retain semi-autonomy within an overall cohesion of growth -- those things of dreams and the sea which advance step-by-step toward no particular goal.
Of the twenty-two works in this showing, several explicitly refer to the sea: The Sea (Oil on canvas: c.1956); The Seawatch (Oil on canvas: c.1957); Blue as the Night (Oil on canvas: c.1952); and Act I By the Sea (Oil on canvas: c.1955). In the work of Miyoko Ito, it must be seen as a virtue that she captured essential relations with charm in a way that they admit of a universality. In her work, a viewer remains free to view such as Construction as a bond of allusive shape and form -- human 'gravitation,' or, as one viewer saw it, a visual interpretation of stellar genesis. Perhaps, as artists like Klee and Kandinsky postulated, there is that transcendant metaphor underlying both: each painting and the reality which inspired it. That may be left to the tender mercies of the philosophers.... For many, the paintings, in their visual richness of form and subtle color, are delight and a pleasure in their own open-endedness. In each, the artist comes to mind; and in many, the rhyme intrudes: "The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea/ In a beautiful pea-green boat...."
Miyoko Ito (1918-1983) was given a major retrospective by the Renaissance Society in 1980. She died three years later at age sixty-five.
"MIYOKO ITO: Mistress of the Sea" is an important exhibition because it offers formative works by the painter; and because Miyoko Ito remains a consummate, enduring artist. The Thomas McCormick Gallery holds much from the estate of Miyoko Ito, and the twenty-two works in this showing are an excellent selection.
The more I have seen of Miyoko Ito's art, the more I have grown with it and because of it. That is a tribute to the creative spirit. "MIYOKO ITO: Mistress of the Sea: Early Works From The Estate" is an exhibition of 22 works now at Thomas McCormick Gallery, 835 West Washington Boulevard, Chicago. This exhibition runs from June 2 through July 1, 2000. It is a showing to experience while time allows: a number of the exhibited paintings are already sold.
--G. Jurek Polanski
Editor's Note: Miyoko Ito: A Review, with an excellent essay by critic Dennis Adrian, was published by the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, October 5-November 9, 1980. A concise biography of Miyoko Ito can be found in Art in Chicago: 1945-1995, (Thames & Hudson/Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago: 1996). The current Thomas McCormick Gallery Catalogue is well worth the modest fifteen dollars.