Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Artists Space’s recent exhibition of Asian American artist Miyoko Ito, “Heart of Hearts” (April 7 - May 6, 2018), presents oil paintings from the 1970s until her death in 1983. Ito was active from the mid-40s to early 80s. This important early Asian American artist should be recognized for her unique manner of visual expression that mediated questions of heritage and modernity.

Miyoko Ito, Island in the Sun (1978), oil on canvas. Photo by Bob Lee

The Asian American Arts Centre attempted to exhibit Ito with other Asian American artists in 2000 for the exhibition “Milieu Part III: Color.” This show was the third in a series entitled “Asian Americans and Their Milieu 1945-65,” curated by Robert Lee. We wish we could have exhibited Ito in 2000 as we intended. However, due to complications that arose during the shipping process, her work could not be included in the show. It instead opened with the five remaining artists’ work (Natvar Bhavsar, Venancio C. Igarta, James Kuo, Ted Kurahara, and Seong Moy). Among these artists, Ito’s use of color is distinct; her use of extremely vivid hues, analogous colors, and subtle contrasts is fresh and highly evolved. These sumptuous color schemes, in conjunction with her surreal compositions, contribute to the strange allure of her work. In a recently rediscovered article written on "Milieu III" by established art critic Thomas McEvilley, never published for lack of funding, McEvilley writes:

"Miyoko Ito (1918-1983) might be described as luxuriating in a restrained sense of color.  Her compositions, mostly based on the still life, have a powerful sense of illustration or design, as if she wanted to reveal her sense of the underlying harmony of things.  Like other artists of Asian extraction in her age group she was attracted to Cubism for the way it fitted everything together like facets of complex jewels, to Hoffman for the same quality as well as for his lack of fear of bright saturated colors, and to such soft Impressionist avatars as Dufy and Bonnard, for the intimate serenity of their view of life.  The prepared ground seems to exude the forms upon it, and to hold them together as a substrate lying beneath and unifying them.  Her works achieved a high resolution in the mid-1950s in paintings such as Act II in the Dusk (1955) and several Untitleds in which gouache-thickened grey-greens and browns mesh like pieces of collage in an homage to the richness of evening’s muted colors."

Miyoko Ito, Gorodiva (1968), oil on canvas. Photo by Bob Lee

Miyoko Ito was born in 1918 in Berkeley, California to Japanese parents. As a young child, her family moved to Japan, where she excelled at calligraphy and traditional landscape painting. In a 1978 interview with Dennis Barrie, Ito states, “Those five years [in Japan] are the root of what I am now,” indicating the continuing significance of Japanese tradition in her work. After returning to Berkeley at age ten, a decision made by the family due to her ill health, she struggled to learn English; in order to do so, she resolved to suppress her knowledge of Japanese. Although she continued to read in Japanese, she refused to speak it. Ito cites her troubled relationship with language as a factor in her development as a visual artist.

In 1942 Ito was sent to an internment camp south of San Francisco, the Tanforan Assembly Center, with her husband who was later sent to the Topaz Relocation Center in Utah; both internment camps held approximately 8,000 Japanese Americans. She received her diploma from UC Berkeley in the mail while at Tanforan. While it is difficult to directly relate her experience in the camps to her later work’s imagery and style, it likely had a profound impact. After a brief stint at Smith College, she moved to Chicago in 1944 to study at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She remained there until her death in 1983.

Ito’s work is marked by a precise use of color and extremely subtle tonal variations that are both soothing and disorienting. These abstract oil paintings feature ambiguous curved and geometric shapes that multiply evoke landscape, architecture, and the body. The frames of the canvases seem to open into various alternate interior spaces that simultaneously flatten themselves. In Tabled Presence (1971) the viewer looks into the interior of a box-like structure in the upper portion of the canvas, yet its contours do not logically correspond to the space inside; two tubes project from a wall only to transition into flat shapes, breaking the illusion of space. The entire structure, generally planar but unrecognizable, can also read as a kind of bust or portrait. This allusive, elusive imagery is hypnotic and mysterious; ultimately, her works resist easy description.

Miyoko Ito, Mandarin, or the Red Empress (1977), oil on canvas. Photo by Bob Lee

Her brightly saturated palettes, fusion of the geometric and the organic, ambiguous imagery recall Western movements such as Cubism, Surrealism, and Abstract Expressionism; in fact, Ito cites Hans Hofmann and Picasso as two major influences on her work. Perhaps her training in Japanese calligraphy and landscape painting can be seen in her extremely fine, carefully layered application of paint. It is also possible to read in her shifting indications of space a search for place, a reflection of the instability and geographical dislocations of her youth and early adulthood.

An excerpt from the 2000 press release for “Milieu III” reads:

“Asian American artists’ work reflects the struggle to respond to these conditions and their dual cultural heritage.  Asian American artists faced a choice.  They chose to affirm or revise, reconcile or ignore, embrace or deny these cultural sources.  Each of the artists in this exhibition carried forward various artistic goals. When seen as a spectrum of Asian adaptations reflecting the processes of diversity and hybridity, they betray, often inadvertently, a spacious geometry of a multicultural universe.”

Miyoko Ito’s work too can be read as a mediation of differing cultures and traditions that resulted in a unique hybrid of Asian American art. Despite Ito’s renown in Chicago, she did not achieve during her lifetime the broader recognition she deserves. Perhaps "Heart of Hearts" and BAMPFA's exhibition of Ito's work earlier this year signify the approach of a critical reappraisal of her work.

Written by summer 2018 intern Amy Hong


For more information on Miyoko Ito:
For installation views of "Heart of Hearts" at Artists Space
For more information on Miyoko Ito: MATRIX 267 at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive:
Different Themes
Written by Lovely

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