Japanisme Returns to Charleston
On display through Oct. 31
62 Queen St.
Japonisme is a term originally coined by a French art critic in 1872 to describe the influence of the arts of Japan on those of the West.
During the late 1800s, an influx of merchant ships from Europe to Japan exposed many Westerners to the visual arts of Japan, particularly traditional ukiyo-e woodblock prints.
The prints' linearity and flat coloration, graphic yet graceful, stood in contrast to the formal realism and frenetic impressionism that were the principal styles of art in Europe at that time.
Fascinated artists began adopting elements of ukiyo-e in their own work, whether through the imposition of Japanese objects or outfits into portraits, or flattening elements of their figures, which is particularly seen in the art nouveau posters of the turn of the century.
Japanisme [sic] Returns to Charleston, then, is a rather confusing title for the exhibition currently showing at the Corrigan Gallery through the end of October.
The 11 paintings on display by Carol Ezell do not demonstrate a Japonisme style. Furthermore, Charleston has never been known in the past for Japonisme work.
What Charleston has had for many years, however, is a stunning collection of traditional Japanese woodblock prints on permanent display at the Gibbes Museum of Art. This, apparently, is where the artist was originally inspired to pursue Japanese-style art, as a child perusing the museum's collection.
In this selection of work, Ezell has taken a seemingly random selection of traditional Japanese prints and copied them onto her own canvases. Most of the pieces portray the archetypal geisha-type woman, although landscape features intermittently as well.
These women are variations on a theme of layered robes, black hair upswept in intricate knots fixed with combs and sticks, and their faces are planes of unflagging serenity as they engage in light recreation.
One example is Ezell's "Fluteplayer," copied from "Sanokawa Ichimatsu" (1756) by Okumura Masanoby. The artist has provided in the gallery a paper guide that shows each original print beside Ezell's copy of it, rarely explaining why she chose that particular work.
"Fluteplayer" is commendably faithful to its original (Ezell does draw her figures out freehand), but the essence of Masanoby's print is lost. The principal media in Ezell's works are charcoal drawn on canvas with acrylic paint coloration. The bluntness of the thick lines and gluey acrylic are a far cry from the light touch and texture of Japanese water-based inks on translucent paper. The paintings end up exchanging the elegant, emotive quality of the prints for more garish, cartoon-like imagery.
What might have produced more successful work would have been an actual application of Japonisme — applying elements of traditional Japanese art to works of her own style and subject matter.
Ezell does approach this goal in one of the show's more compelling pieces, the only work that strays from direct copy. The painting is a synthesis of two disparate works. One is a print, "Fuji Seen from Shichirigahama Beach in Sagami Province" (c. 1831) by the renowned Hokusai. The other is a photograph of two women bathing in a hot spring that was sent to Ezell by a Japanese friend. Together, they become Ezell's "Bathers with View of Mount Fuji."
In her painting, Ezell captures the bathers' contemplative and relaxed air as they look beyond the spring to Mt. Fuji. Their backs are to us, giving the impression that they are communing with nature and unconcerned with any interest the human viewer may be deriving from their nudity.
The mountain itself is unremarkable, but the sky beyond is a lovely gradation of dark blue at the horizon to nearly white at the uppermost atmosphere. The water of the spring itself is rendered well, both placid yet still alive with ripples from a light breeze or the bathers' movement, its naturalism juxtaposed with the surreal smoothness of the women's skin.
This type of contrast is a common quality of many traditional Japanese prints and is replicated well in this work.
In the end, the artist's goal in Japanisme Returns to Charleston is unclear.
Are these paintings attempting to bring an old Eastern style to a modern Western aesthetic? Or simply a Westerner's homage to a respected Eastern art form via direct replication?
Ezell's appreciation for the traditional Japanese print is evident in her written chronicle of her own return to study Japanese art at different points over the years, not to mention her commitment to copy these works as truthfully as possible.
The very action of copying these works, however, is perhaps the root of the disappointment in this exhibit. Each original print was not only a work of art, but, like the Japanese haiku, an exercise in personal meditation — an act that, by nature, must be irreplicable.