Wood block breaks out - New exhibit of Japanese print art at SAAM

It's likely that wood-block prints are the Japanese artform most popular in the Western world. Painstakingly printed, one color at a time, from hand-chiseled blocks, they have a history that extends back more than 300 years.

The specimens with which we are most familiar are those depicting geishas, landscapes, household activities or scenes from Kabuki productions. Although many were printed in vast quantities in the 19th and early 20th centuries, most had a short life. The examples surviving today are in private collections and major art museums around the world, prized for the subtlety of their renderings and the precision of the printing technique.

There's a different kind of Japanese print on show at the Seattle Asian Art Museum right now. These prints have all the subtlety and precision of the earlier examples, but the images are contemporary abstractions, quite unlike the traditional works. "Beyond the Paper Plane: Japanese Prints from the 1950s to 1970s" offers audiences a chance to see a genre that is rarely on exhibit. Their neglect is a shame because some of them are stunning.

As Japan reconstituted itself after World War II, its artists had an opportunity to meld traditional Japanese artforms with new materials and processes introduced from the West. Throughout history, the Japanese have excelled at appropriating the ideas of other cultures, improving upon them and making them their own; whether it was garden design from China or automobiles from the West, they saw ways to refine the concept and give it a Japanese stamp.

Despite the fact that the wood-block print is a defining feature of the Japanese aesthetic, the post-World War II artists were receptive to experimentation with newly introduced techniques. Paper, inks and the blocks themselves could all be created and combined in new ways. The artists of the '50s began to manipulate the paper, creating new surfaces and applying embossed patterns. The designs they carved into their wood blocks and then printed onto the paper complemented the designs in the paper itself. And this combination was often used to create a three-dimensional effect.

These artists experimented with the designs or images chiseled into the wood. The traditional subjects were rejected in favor of abstract patterns. No longer were the blocks restricted to rectangular shape. No longer did the artists think it necessary to build a print from a number of blocks, each of which applied a different color.

They adopted and adapted the print techniques of the West: engraving, lithography and silk screen. They experimented with the application of a single color, creating mono-chrome prints. Sometimes they used the same block, but printed it in dif-ferent positions on the paper. Sometimes, through precise carving, they reinforced the grain of the wood, making that the primary element of the design.

Iwami Reika does this, and I found her work particularly compelling. She is influenced by the beauty of flowing water and tries to incorporate that movement into her prints. She creates the effect of rippling water by empha-sizing the pattern of the wood grain in the blocks. Using a minimalist palette of blacks, tans and sometimes gold, she achieves remarkable effects. As a viewer, your eyes are drawn ever deeper into her print, yet simultaneously you are drawn deeper into yourself.

"Water," a pair of prints in shades of black and tan, is made from a single, circular wood block. But with that block, the artist has created three very different images, and she has used the block itself as the fourth image within this grouping. It's an exercise in symmetry and diversity, all achieved with one block.

Matsubara Naoko's "Sylvan Snow" is another wonderful monochrome. Here overlapping abstract black lines and shapes create a winter forest. The individual elements don't really look like trees, but there's no question that the whole composition depicts a tranquil forest softened by snow.

If you like color, you'll be interested in Amano Kazumi's "Mirror." Here an open geometric circular form printed in a subtle range of soft shades of reds and oranges seems to float on a paper that has uneven, horizontal, embossed furrows. Again, there's an astounding harmony, symmetry and dimensionality.

This is a small show, only 11 artists represented by only 19 works. Within that limited group, however, are a wide range of prints that show remarkable innovations. Not all the prints are wonderful, but some are simply breathtaking. If you have any interest in Japanese aesthetics or the art of printmaking, you will especially enjoy contemplating these works. The quiet of SAAM's galleries provides just the right atmosphere to appreciate the experience.

"Beyond the Paper Plane: Japanese Prints from the 1950s to 1970s" will be on exhibit through June 2005.

The Seattle Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park, (654-3100) is open Wednesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Thursdays until 9 p.m. Admission $3

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