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Junko Yamamoto at EC Gallery

By Robin Dluzen

EC Gallery is hosting the first Chicago exhibition for Tokyo-born, Seattle-based artist, Junko Yamamoto. The gallery, which trades off the small, but bright Fulton Market exhibition space with Kasia Kay Art Projects, is displaying a selection of oil paintings and small scale prints on paper in the exhibition “In between, you and I, there is space all around us.” The collection of paintings, entitled “Shunyata Series,” (Shunyata is the “Sanskrit word for ‘emptiness’”), explores the voids and the fullness of pictorial spaces.

Yamamoto’s paintings are square in format, and modestly sized. Square paintings afford artists a little bit of freedom from the rectangles of traditional painting; without referencing the portraiture of the vertical rectangle or the landscape of the horizontal, the square for Yamamoto allows for her all-over patterns exist as a moment in, or a fragment of, a continuous pattern. Her squares in the Shunyata Series appear unbound by their edges and dimensions, and they prompt their viewers to visualize the rest of an endless composition. And the notion that viewers must imagine a picture beyond what’s on the canvas locates these paintings somewhere outside of illusionistc space, to where we could begin to think about them possibly inhabiting the real world.

Composed of layers of different colors, forms and kinds of mark-making, the paintings bring to mind the layers of an urban environment. Though the artist professes that she “loves muted colors,” each painting begins with an all-over layer of cadmium red, applied with a printer’s roller. Instead of dealing with the intimidating, empty, neutral canvas that most painters dread, Yamamoto’s solution is to begin with one of the most dynamic, saturated colors available, and then set the painting into motion by progressively softening that first layer. It seems important for Yamamoto’s making process to create a foil against which to respond. Like the cadmium red that induces the addition of the pastels, the artist describes the employment of oil paint as a sort of antagonist; the oil paint forces the artist to slow the painting process down, in order to create a “past” or history for the finished product. Leaving layers of paint visible underneath the stenciled forms, painted groupings of circles and the graphically outlined ovals and flowers are what bring to mind the passage of time that is documented by the layers of graffiti and wheat-pasted posters of city life.

But what’s surprising in the works’ relationship to the graffiti-like references –that are often connoted as loaded and gritty—is the enduring lightness and sweetness of the finished paintings. All the palettes are light pastels, in greens, yellows, pinks and purples and make a blissful environment in which the flowers and the delicate, abstracted little characters can inhabit. As much as the paintings are about building a unique history for the painting and encouraging pictorial space within the confines of the super-flat, two-dimensional medium, they end up expressing just as much about the importance of beauty and decoration in the everyday.

“In between, You and I, there is space all around us” is on display May 14 – June 19, 2010 at EC Gallery, 215 North Aberdeen, Chicago.