On the Work of Mineko Yoshida

by poet Susan Ludvigson


     Mineko Yoshida's paintings combine delicacy, sureness, and a fluidity of
brushwork that owe a great deal to her training in Japanese calligraphy, which she
studied for twelve years.  But her painting career did not begin until she traveled
around Europe and the U.S. and became enamored with Western painters, including
Cezanne, Matisse, Velasquez, and Klee, as well as the American abstract
expressionists.  After moving to New York, her paintings became primarily abstract
and calligraphic---a combination that works brilliantly and imbues her work with a 
unique and highly successful cultural melding.

      I am especially drawn to what I see as the playfulness of some of her
brushwork, a whimsical approach to mark-making that delights the eye and
intrigues the imagination,  Often the "figures" in the paintings resemble
calligraphy---sometimes vaguely, sometimes more obviously.  Playfulness also
shows itself in her titles.  A few of her works from 2005, for example, are titled
"Have a Nice Lunch," "Red Wig," "Six Dwarfs,"and "Whisper in the Ear."  It would be
difficult to find in the paintings themselves the direct sources of these titles.  The
paintings themselves are evocative individually and in the patterns they make,
some more densely "populated" than others.  And the intrigue continues in
combination with the paintings' titles, which invite the viewer to complete the
metaphor, or to participate in the invention of it.  For as soon as a thing is named in
a way that isn't immediately obvious, metaphor begs to be born.    

      In "Green Christmas," the only obvious connection to Christmas is the green
background, but one can "read" the figures as colorful and fanciful ornaments,
producing a sense of lightness and even joy.  The green background is not what we
think of as a Christmas green, for the painting is suggestive rather than in any way
prescriptive.  It is an easy step, however, to read into them a Christmas "spirit."

      If one examines "Two Tunnels" it's not difficult to find two figures or images
that vaguely resemble tunnels in the inverted U shape and the hint of light within
(or at the end?) of them.  Surrounding the "tunnels" are various shapes that seem to
rise and float in the blue background.  Rhythmic movement is one of the defining
qualities of Yoshida's marks---and the movement usually appears to take place in
air.  I happened to be an enthusiast of tunnels---of watching the world open as I drive
through them---and of course the pleasure of that process depends on the framing of
the scene and the way it expands, as these paintings "frame" individual image-
experiences, making of them a prolonged aesthetic moment. 

      Yoshida's work in the early nineties is more purely abstract, with almost no
reference to calligraphy.  She says she experimented with de Kooning and
Frankenthaler styles, but quickly moved toward her own vision.  I find this period in
her work especially dynamic and strong---a strength that maintains her delicacy of
brushwork while generating complex, ambiguous imagery, enlarging and 
simplifying simultaneously.  "Water Tank," a piece that vaguely suggests a vessel
with water, consists of a simple outline beginning with a light black line leading
down to a blue-gray base consisting of a thicker stroke, and a yellow-gold "string"
attaching the vessel to the suggestion of landscape at the top right of the canvas,
where one can "read" trees. Of these pieces, it seems to me the most Japanese in
feeling, both because of the delicacy of the implied landscape, and the simplicity of
line and subtlety of color that quietly astonish: such grace arising out of a faith in
intuition and skill.

      I am also drawn strongly to "New Year's Day 1991," in which the movement 
in the painting is confined to the center of the canvas, to to bottom, using strong colors: black, red, blue, a dark yellow-green. Here, the impression is of a merging of
power with a perfect lightness of touch---beautifully balanced.

      "Sumie, " from the same period (1991), moves from left to right, the left side of
the canvas containing most of the color, here muted---blues, grays, pale yellow---
leading across to the right near the bottom of the canvas, where the image at the far
right is blood-red---a color hinted at on the left, but developed as it appears to be
leaving the canvas at the right margin.  The composition is critical here, but again it's
Yoshida's mastery of color and line and her deftness with the brush that make the
painting so compelling.  This is a work that holds the eve in thrall.

      Yoshida has said that she likes to concentrate on getting the right stroke with
the right color spontaneously, and she thinks of her painting as more like a process
of drawing on the canvas---as in calligraphy.  She developed an aversion to covering
the canvas with paint, preferring to concentrate on the figures themselves. In her
most recent work, the individual images/figures are linked in rhythmic labyrinthine
patterns. Although she uses many colors in each painting, some of them bright or
dark, the overall impression is of ribbon-like pastels that lead the eye across the
canvas, around it to a center, or in linked, almost dizzying circles and half-circles---
all appealing and generous in their exuberance.

This is but a sampling of the variety of Yoshida's paintings. She also works 
with classic symbols like the mandala, inserting calligraphic-like figures into
mandala patterns. She has arranged miniature painted "drawings" in various  
geometric patterns: in tile-like arrangements; in strips of color dividing the images;
as checkerboards; as musical notes on a staff; in discrete columns suggestive of
Japanese calligraphic writing; in panels bordered by intricate designs from various
traditions.

     Here is a painter who deserves a wide audience. Her unique blend of
calligraphy-inspired images and her enactments of the abstract imagination are
immensely rich experiences for the viewer.  I found myself entering some of the
paintings as if they were territories to be explored.  In others, my delight was in her
unique combinations of color, image, and pattern, and always the characteristic
lilting brushstrokes.  This is altogether entrancing work.
I have always felt that abstraction in painting fostered a glorious break through into the condition of

 purely visual music, but that almost from its inception its practitioners took a wrong turn into 

self-indulgence and an increasingly arid formalism. The work of Mineko restores the original

 promise of abstract art to give us not the representation of causes and effects but the distillation of

 inner experience, and especially to explore realms of playfulness, joy, and spiritual plenitude long 

neglected in fashionably despairing styles. Theses paintings please us at first glance with their 

graceful compositions and they reward deep engagement with their details. They gratify us without

 the pretentiousness and search for novelty that disfigure so much contemporary art.  This is 

healthy and affirmative painting that celebrates our humanity. 

                                                                                                 ---------------------Stephen Kenamer
                                                                                Former culture critic of The Richmond Times
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