What do Roger Brown, Sarah Canright, Jordan Davies, Ed Flood, Art Green, Philip Hanson, Richard Hull, Jin Soo Kim, Jim Nutt, Ed Paschke, Christina Ramberg, Suellen Rocca, Barbara Rossi, William Schwedler, Rebecca Shore, Chris Ware, Karl Wirsum and Mary Lou Zelazny have in common? The answer of course is that they were all students of Ray Yoshida at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. While his importance as a teacher, mentor and inspiration is well-known and well-documented, most recently in Touch and Go: Ray Yoshida and his Spheres of Influence, curated by former students John Corbett and Jim Dempsey, in the Sullivan Galleries, School of the Art Institute of Chicago (November 12, 2010–February 12, 2011), what are less known — particularly outside of Chicago — are his innovations and accomplishments as an artist. In this regard, he is less famous than some of his students.
Until there is a large survey of Yoshida’s work outside of Chicago, preferably one that travels to a number of venues, we must glean what we can from the evidence that is offered on his behalf. The most recent instance is Ray Yoshida: Mystery and Wit at David Nolan (December 10, 2015–January 30, 2016). With the exception of one collage dated 1993, all the work in the exhibition was done in a five-year period, 1969–1974. During this time, Yoshida made drawings with a felt-tip pen, assembled collages from precisely cut fragments of comics, explored stripes and patterns in ways that shifted between abstraction and representation, and made paintings in which these distinctions are moot. In other words, he experimented with, as well as mastered new materials (felt-tip pen), made innovative collages and hybrid paintings whose synthesis anticipates Alexander Ross. Moreover, he and Miyoko Ito are central to the rebirth of abstraction in the 1970s in Chicago. The fact that this abstraction had nothing to do with either Abstract Expressionism or Minimalism was not seen as its strength but should have been.
The exhibition includes three examples from what Yoshida collectively titled his Comic Book Specimen Series, which constitutes one of his major innovations. In these works, which he most likely started around 1967, Yoshida carefully cut out fragments from newspaper comic strips and comic books. Sometimes the precisely isolated form (silhouettes, clothing, fists) determined the shape, but in other cases the odd, geometric shape (architectural detail) determined the view. Yoshida categorized these fragments in loose typologies (explosions, hats, shoes, or capes) or reconfigured them in a way that echoes the surrealist technique of an Exquisite Corpse.
(It seems to me that there is an exhibition involving the use of comics by Yoshida, Öyvind Fahlström, and Jess waiting to be organized.)
By extracting fragments from disparate popular comic strips, such as Nancy and various superhero narratives, Yoshida was able shift attention away from the narrative to his isolated, often baffling forms. By isolating these forms, endowing them with mystery, Yoshida was able to elevate comics into another domain, one that shares something with an observation made by Willem de Kooning: “Content is a glimpse of something, an encounter like a flash. It’s very tiny–very tiny content.”
In the Comic Specimen Series, Yoshida isolated fragments, denying the context and narrative in which they were originally embedded. It’s as if he were a miner displaying the rare minerals he had released from the mud of daily life. On the other end of spectrum are the felt-tip pen drawings and acrylic paintings in which he developed a vocabulary of stripes and patterns that compel the viewer to distinguish form from pattern, and figure from ground. In these works, Yoshida was inspired by the African-American self-taught artist Joseph Yoakum, whose work he collected and championed. Despite the apparent differences in materials and methods, Yoshida’s astute formal interests and compositional mastery connect the two bodies of work. It is also apparent that by the late 1960s, Yoshida had internalized a wide range of source material, from “outsider” and folk art to decorative patterns, comic strips and other found material. He was voracious, restless, focused, and open to experiment, as attested to by his felt-tip pen drawings. All of this — and much, much more — he passed on to any student willing to listen.
Yoshida’s interest in fragments led him to a series of acrylic paintings between the early and mid-1970s in which outlined, mineral-like conglomerations, often phallic in shape, are arranged in rows filling the entire composition. It is as if he gathered these curious forms solely for their shape and color. The palette goes from earth color to the chthonic, dirt to mineral. They evoke Chinese Scholar’s Rocks, Magritte’s transformations of familiar things, such as a baguette, into stone, and a coded language in which a forbidden erotic message (as suggested by the rough, stone-like surface) might be hidden. Are these forms figures or body parts or both?
Influenced by surrealism, Yoshida dislodged his fragments from narrative and the easily irrational, which is why they feel so contemporary. There is something oddly repellant and inviting about these collections of mineral-like forms, a condition of otherness that cannot be assimilated. They refuse to be read literally, which is one reason why they have not gained the attention they deserve. At the same time, they seem as if they are things Yoshida found, but where he might have done so never becomes apparent. Finally, in these works and a number of stripe paintings done around this time, Yoshida collapses the distinction between abstraction and representation. Ultimately, they seem to comprise a painterly equivalent of a Cabinet of Curiosities, an archive of unknown and unknowable things. Here again, one sees Yoshida’s prescience; he anticipated so many of the ways artists would later gather and organize information.
In a number of the felt-tip pen drawings, the patterned surface evokes both a furrowed landscape and a scarified body. In an untitled drawing of parted curtains (ca. 1972), the view is abstract and erotic, male and female. When the patterned drawings shift toward the representational, in which striped figures are visible, something perverse and unnamable seems to be unfolding right before our eyes. Even as they emerge or run counter to the patterns, the figures seem hidden from both viewers and themselves. Crucial to all of Yoshida’s work is the relationship between legibility and illegibility, the transparent and the opaque, which he explored with intelligence and wit, a sense of the sexual that is both innocent and wicked.
I have often wondered why Yoshida is not better known. Is it because he was a Japanese-American and, worse, refused to identify himself as such? Is it because his students — mostly white — became notorious, and he was largely reticent in his work and self-effacing in person? Is it because the art world still operates as if America is either black or white? Is it because he refused to assimilate and work in a widely accepted mainstream style? Is it because he shifted between abstraction and the figural? Is it because he worked in inexpensive materials, such as collage, and made drawings with a felt-tip pen? Whatever the reason — and there are many contributing factors — it is time we give Yoshida’s work a longer and deeper look.
Ray Yoshida: Mystery and Wit continues at David Nolan Gallery (527 West 29th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through January 30, 2016.