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Michiko Itatani at Walsh Gallery

by Robin Dluzen

Small works by Itatani

Though sheer physical presence is obvious upon entering Chicago-based Michiko Itatani’s solo exhibition at the West Loop’s Walsh Gallery, these oil paintings exude a warmth rare in works of Abstract Expressionist scale. Her palette of warm blacks, browns, beiges, whites and pastel blues punctuated with bright, saturated colors employed to articulate her geometric forms, prime our experience of the autobiographical, “Personal Codes,” which successfully merges a private, meditative practice, with a generous, external language. Systems, here, are key for an understanding of Itatani’s content, as her own explicatory formal language harmoniously permeates throughout the exhibition.

Itatani speaking with gallery visitors

From a distance, the paintings of spaces ranging from woodsy, outdoor settings, to library interiors and astral bodies, are composed of geometric patterns in varying degrees of abstraction, both encouraging, then flattening the illusionistic space of the two-dimensional picture plane. These patterns, themselves textile-like, are a reinforced notion upon one’s closer inspection; for each form, different textures are carefully chosen: glossy drips, dry brushstrokes, impasto-like gestures, and calligraphic script and delicate, parallel lines of paint and wax deposited with a syringe. The textures function both to distinguish each shape from its neighbors, and to weave a complex, all-over, tactile surface. These textures are evident also in the silverpoint works on paper, despite the absence of the three-dimensional quality; the natures of the light washes and of the silverpoint continue Itatani’s textural language through tone, mark-making and sheen.

A viewer in front of one of Itatani's larger pieces

The silverpoint works on paper make up a small portion of the exhibition, but they contribute to this theme of “codes”; though not reducing them to sketches, these windows to the composition process illustrate how the application of Itatani’s formal language to the large-scale paintings is possible. And in addition to the information that the works on paper offer, the curation of  “Personal Codes” expounds the abstract language of the paintings.

The proximity of the more representational works to the more abstracted ones—particularly in the “Moon Light/Mooring” series– spells out for viewers the subject matter from which the forms initiate– for instance the permutation of the representation of cast light from between the tree to the patterning of the abstracted geometric forms. The inherent generosity in this gesture challenges the privileging, withholding nature of abstract painting; instead of offering us only the formal concerns, Itatani reveals her motivation to retain and articulate the initial visual stimulus, the autobiographical narrative of this series of works.

The artist states, “I am dealing with the idea of fiction. I strongly believe in fiction’s ability to express the deepest truths,” which explains the peculiar utilization of abstract language to communicate personal narratives. Not only does this abolish the exclusionary, elitist position of much contemporary abstract painting, but in addition it optimistically revitalizes the capacity of the genre to address something beyond itself, a surely welcomed, long-awaited realization.

This exhibition runs February 9 through April 17, 2010 at Walsh Gallery, 118 N. Peoria Street, 2nd floor, Chicago, Il 60607.