Miyoko Ito

by Len Klekner

It is way past time to begin to speak of the greatness of this artist, Miyoko Ito. She was in many respects to Chicago, what Milton Avery was to New York-the quiet one, speaking in authoritative accents, around whom so much revolved. It is disappointing that more than twenty years after her death, her work is so little known and so little appreciated beyond the city in which her career unfolded. But it is sadly, hardly surprising. Attention is paid to the art of Chicago in little more than fits and starts. And the women artists who have been so thoroughly central to the artistic life of that city, participating on an equal footing with their male colleagues, have been the ones most likely to be overlooked by artistic communities and centers of exchange more celebrated and self-confident, but not nearly as open and equable. But of all impediments in the fair of the world, as with Avery, to have been the quiet one may have been the greatest.

Had the artist had a more public persona, the work she produced might today be better known and more celebrated than it is. But this art's continuing occupation of a place on the margins of historical awareness and critical attention, has not been wholly bad. Though it has limited the scale of the audience, it has oddly worked in the art's favor in a number of quite unexpected ways. Viewers are most likely to stumble upon an Ito painting unarmed with knowledge or expectations. And that is today a most rare and enviable condition in an art world, which is, to paraphrase Maurice Merleau-Ponty, overrun with pre-packaged information and potted opinion as with an invasion. Free of knowledge, bereft of expectations, one runs the risk of being engifted with the opportunity to just see, really see. Most, needing the validation of the work that canned opinion provides, will not even stop to look. But those willing to take the risk, to step beyond the accepted script, will see. And at that moment the work will have found its viewer--the right, because open and receptive, viewer.

I find it interesting that for those new to the art of Chicago, in viewing surveys of the art of that city, it is always the work of Ito, constantly Ito, that is the discovery, the surprise, the revelation. The marginalization of the artist and her work cannot wholly account for that. Nor can that marginalization account for the audience upon which Ito's work has always exercised a pervasive hold-her fellow artists of Chicago. In this, too, she is like Avery, or perhaps more like Cézanne, in that her hold flows through her work to artists who never knew her directly. It is one of the amazing features of the history of the effects of her work, that an enormous proportion of her oeuvre is to be found in the collections of her fellow artists-a far larger proportion than we will find in the case of virtually any other art maker. We are not talking about the acquisition of single works, but of two, or three, or five, or even, in one case, as many as ten. And we are not talking about works acquired in trade, but of exhibitions largely bought out by artists for whom Ito's work is and remains a passion. We would expect that abstract painters would buy her works, and they have. But the really passionate collectors have been the Chicago Imagists.

Certainly, this audience of artists is above all else an audience that knows how to really see. But we can only account for their intense engagement with Ito's work by looking to what her work provides. To do this, we have to understand that works of art are not neutral objects which exist to be appreciated. They are instead affective objects, engines of experience, designed to work on their viewers-designed to move, stir, impact and engage, transform, and even perhaps transfigure those who encounter them. They do this by bringing into play a set of affective elements drawn from the larger tool box of the craft. Every work will present either a unique set of these elements or a unique orchestration of a specific set. Most artists have a preferred set of these elements and markedly favor certain ways of arranging them and setting them to work. Seen as static, this is style. But seen as dynamic, as having been set to work in individual pieces, this is the engine of experience.

Ito's mature work may be divided into three distinct periods by the forms featured in her paintings and the color choices she made. This exhibition presents works from the end of the first and the second of these divisions. But the important affective elements remained relatively constant throughout all of her work. And the paintings in this exhibition provide an exceptional display of these elements.

We often fail to recognize the seeming background of an image, perhaps better understood as the contextual field that an artist constructs, as an important, and even one of the most important, affective elements in a work of art. We are likely to see grounds as neutral fields upon which the more individualized elements of pictorial incident find display. We fail to understand that this field often does more than any other element to set the mood that the image projects. And we have to realize that the more individualized elements of the pictorial structure, insofar as they operate at all, do so in relation, and contrast (a dialogical contrast), to the fields on which they are displayed. Ito's fields are generally quiet. Her colors are subdued and understated. They seem to project a sense of reserve. And the elements of pictorial incident arrayed upon them often seem to partake so much of the same understated nature that at times they barely seem to differentiate themselves from the fields they occupy. They subtly and tentatively emerge from the fields which support them-displaying themselves only on the fringes of perceptual attention.

One of the most powerful, if also most subtle, of her affective tools is to be found in the way she applied paint. She almost always used a coat of under paint (most often red or green, but early on sometimes orange or blue), with the specific color chosen to contrast, sometimes jarringly, with the dominant tonality of her elected surface coat. The surface layers are then applied in a stiff paint that allows for gaps through which the contrasting undercoat is allowed to peek. The effect is an intense sense of an evocative emotional rather than physical depth or resonance, which for all of its power seems to operate at the limits of conscious awareness.

Her paintings are in the main abstract, creating and maintaining an alternative universe as a whole distinctly set off from the world we inhabit. But many of her forms are allusive, suggestive of bits and pieces of bodies and the furnishings of our everyday lives. These elements are never resolved enough to overpower the imaginative arenas of her abstract fields. But they are suggestive enough, and perhaps even jarring enough, to lend another level of frisson to her works. Her forms are also often playful, quirky, and even goofy-to the point of contrasting markedly with the quiet authority of her sensitive backgrounds and resonant facture.

At first her compositions are likely to seem refined and sensitive. But they are often quite odd, asymmetrical, and unbalanced. The pictorial field is peculiarly addressed. Elements of singular visual interest hover at the top of the field or seem to multiply at edges at which they are disconcertingly cropped. There are powerful orthogonals, but there seems to be little or no interest in the depiction or suggestion of a multidimensional space. This may reflect sources in Japanese art and design. But its sources are not nearly as important as its effects, which once again throw the viewer off balance and contribute to an experience that is visually rich and engaging.

Initially Ito's paintings can seem simple and perhaps even predictable. But they have the power to insinuate themselves into our psyches and haunt us. Not totally unlike the paintings of Cézanne, they do this not through the sense of quiet reserved calm they initially project, but by means of what is unfolding at the margins of conscious engagement. It is there that the odd subliminal elements multiply to charge the pictorial field and with it the viewer's experience.

I hope that in this rare opportunity to engage a group of Miyoko Ito's paintings at Adam Baumgold Gallery, more viewers will find the opportunity to see, and to find what others have in the works of this amazing painter.

paintings - works on paper