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Magic Markings 

Accident and surprise in the work of Arthur Okamura

Wednesday, Nov 12 2003
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My first gallery encounter with artist Arthur Okamura came at his one-man painting show two years ago when, unannounced, he began performing a series of his celebrated "pantry" tricks. Over lots of artsy chitchat from a crowd ogling his Bolinas seascapes, a loud whirring noise began echoing off the warehouse walls of the Braunstein/Quay Gallery. In a corner, Okamura had been patiently filing the hook of an elongated wire coat hanger. With a penny balanced on this flat, pinpoint surface, he began spinning the upside-down hanger, as centrifugal force kept the coin in place. Gradually, the audience began to grasp the wonder of this gravity-defying feat. As people circled around Okamura, the room fell silent. Next came what I'd call his Aluminum Recycling Act of 2001: The artist balanced himself, cranelike, with one foot on top of an empty soda can. Dropping his hands, he tapped its sides and, presto, the Tower of Sprite collapsed with an embarrassed, crinkling squash. Then, with dollar bills solicited from the throng, origami master Okamura created designer bow ties and wedding rings.

All this transpired in about the time it would take you to chalk a cue stick, take a sip of beer, and slam a break shot at the pool table in Smiley's Bar in Bolinas -- which is where, late in the afternoon, you're likely to find this author of The Paper Propeller, The Spinning Quarter, The Jumping Frog and 38 Other Amazing Tricks You Can Do With Stuff Lying Around the House. He writes that most of the gags "require the simplest of materials and things that are commonly at hand. Unlike 'magic tricks,' they do not require deception, nor is there any need to keep them secret. They can be shown and shared with others, and passed on, as they were to me." This is only slightly disingenuous, as you discover when you try to master them yourself, but it aptly reflects the spirit of a new one-man show of Okamura's artwork at Braunstein/Quay. There's plenty of visual magic to be found here.

The show is Okamura's first exhibition of small paintings and monoprints ever. His recent pieces were inspired by travels to Europe and Hawaii and by his ongoing meditations, walking his dog Coco along the Bolinas shoreline. Abstract and representational elements work hand in glove in Okamura's images, with a heavy reliance on accident and spontaneity. This method is most apparent in a series of monotype portraits of Matisse, Picasso, and Monet, loosely based on photographs the artist found lying around the house.

In the monoprint Monet in His Garden #8, Okamura has imagined the bearded impressionist master of Giverny on a Sunday, his day off from painting, attired in a three-piece suit and straw hat and chain-smoking. Monet stands in the foreground of a serpentine garden path, delineated with the loose, swirling curves typical of Okamura's animated line. The background is a riot of marks: an invented childlike script, rainbow arcs, and thick scribbles -- a draftsman's impressionism or some wild Zen calligraphy. The ensemble of lines suggests a musical score composed on hallucinogens and reveals the playful impulsiveness at the core of Okamura's art. The crumpled paper he uses as a canvas for Matisse and Picasso II adds other accidental effects of texture and line.

Born in Long Beach, Okamura spent part of his World War II childhood in a Colorado concentration camp for Japanese families. In his early teens he moved to Chicago, where he worked after school in a silk-screen shop run by old lefties and union organizers. There he aspired to be a magazine illustrator like Norman Rockwell, and designed campaign ties for Progressive candidates such as Henry Wallace before beginning studies at the Art Institute. As an illustrator, he first felt hostile to most abstract modern art, but his tastes changed the more he was exposed to it. A traveling fellowship brought him to Paris in 1954, where he arrived to read newspaper headlines announcing Matisse's death. He was pleased and astonished to be in a country where the death of an abstract painter would make national headlines. Okamura credits poet Robert Creeley, whom he met in 1955 in Majorca, for helping him to explore the idea of spontaneous expression in his painting. Creeley introduced him to jazz great Charlie Parker and the Black Mountain school of artists and writers.

Okamura applied their improvisatory ideas and methods to his own work. Monoprints, for example, are typically etched or put through a press, but Okamura's process is far more simplified and aleatory. He rolls black oil paint onto a glass pane, places lightweight paper on top of this surface, and with various drawing tools (his fingers, an Afro comb, hand pressure) creates the marks, textures, and impressions that delineate the image. The result, he tells me, depends as much on accidents -- even dust on the surface of the glass -- as on the fact that he improvises upon his photographic sources by viewing them upside down. Drawing from an inverted image, he believes, helps him see the face abstractly, accenting its forms, shapes, and lines -- a lesson he brought to his students at the California College of the Arts, where he taught for nearly 40 years.

The oil painting View of Notre Dame From the Left Bank presents an iconic Parisian tourist destination with completely original vision. The subject is less the cathedral itself than the act of seeing it, perhaps for the first time. The stone surfaces, rose window, buttresses, and towers are defined (rather than detailed) by a thick impasto of speckled colors for an effect similar to Gaudi's. The dense, impressionistic coloring and surface contrast with the top third of the image: a canopy of flat black foliage -- the leaves of a Paulownia tree. They create a three-dimensional effect, and the viewer is startled by this abstract arboreal pattern -- it resembles a Matisse cutout -- hovering over the cathedral. The composition presents a visual epiphany, what a tourist might experience emerging from a Left Bank book stall.

A similar perceptual play of abstract pattern and picture planes is at work in a pair of Marin landscapes (View of Novato 1 and View of Novato 2). In the former, a herd of cows gathers at the vanishing point of the miniature canvas, where three land forms meet: a receding pasture in the foreground, an undulating hillside to the left, and a third distant ridge to the right. The black-and-white pattern of the cowhides heightens the sense of receding space. In the companion piece, the cows are spread out along a thin, delicately executed horizontal band that divides the small canvas according to the proportions of the golden mean. Even in these recognizable landscape subjects, the sense of design overrides the interest in documentary detail.

In an artist's statement for the show, Okamura writes that he frequently uses a digital camera "to photograph subjects, capture moments, and to support a spontaneous nature." Such moments of seeing animate his work. The oil Morning Walk is one such "commonplace" full of implied vision. Something draws us in. The more you look at this remarkable vertical composition, the more you notice its play of perceptions. In it, a muddy road recedes toward the upper left corner as a dog walks gingerly toward the viewer. Partly washed out by the rain, the road reflects a parallel universe in the elongated pool of water that submerges and flanks it. The boundaries between earth, water, and air are erased as we see the image of a towering eucalyptus mirrored from above. Okamura suggests dense vegetation with Pollock-esque drips of green over a surface of smoky mauves, pinks, and slate blues.

Okamura's attention to pattern, movement, and design is most visible in his exotic garden paintings. Jungle Garden was inspired by a stay with his student, the artist Hiroki Morinoue, in Holualoa, Hawaii; this oil is a tour de force of orchestrated hues and implied motion. The play of light and shadows in the foliage is reflected in a series of arcing, splayed green and silver fronds painted (uncharacteristically for Okamura) with photo-realist detail. The composition suggests a subtle passage of light and breeze through a thick, tropical biomass, evoking the lush worlds of Rousseau's landscapes and Monet's waterlilies. Another oil on canvas, Garden II, pays homage to famed Bay Area botanist Dennis Breedlove, who spent 30 years studying and gathering rare plants in Chiapas. Breedlove's Bolinas garden is the subject here, and Okamura has created a universe of fantastically colored plants: peacock blue foxgloves behind a coral red flowering bush, and overhead the dark green limbs and branches of some drooping pines.

The painter has a gift for compressing large vistas into small canvases, with a nod perhaps to Japanese and Chinese fan painting. For example, Towards Sea, an 8-by-10-inch oil, looks out over the Bolinas Lagoon and a spit of shoreline marking the end of Stinson Beach. The foreground is a thick swath of pine tops high along the Bolinas ridge, and the panorama is crowned by a dense bank of rolling cumulus clouds that reflects a pinkish-gray early morning light.

Okamura's work uses everyday subject matter, but with the aim of teaching us to see more abstractly and reflect on the magic of perception itself. He delights in planting surprises for the viewer, and this exhibit showcases the remarkable versatility and originality of an artist whose vision continues to inspire wonder.

About The Author

Carl Nagin

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