For decades, the late Japanese artist Yoshitoshi Mori worked as an established kimono designer, using a stencil-based technique to dye his textiles. When he shifted his focus entirely to printmaking in 1960 after experimenting with the medium, he continued working with this layered design method. His resulting wealth of kappazuri — works produced with carefully hand-cut paper stencils — drew from the mingei folk art movement of the ’20s and ’30s that cherished handicraft. Looking further back into Japanese visual traditions, they also focus on subjects of pleasure widely depicted in the ukiyo-e of the Edo period, showing sensual courtesans, kabuki actors, and scenes from Japanese myth. Multilayered and composed of intricate shapes, Mori’s prints are best appreciated up close, an opportunity given by a current exhibition at Ronin Gallery that also features a handful of his sketchbook illustrations and paintings.
While stencil-based printmaking may conjure images with rigid forms, Mori’s prints are incredibly dynamic, composed of thick but fluid lines that constantly move the eye. One rendering of Taira no Tomomori, a warrior figure and popular character included in kabuki plays, juxtaposes swirling patterns on the man’s garments with dramatic hair that shoots from his head like a fountain. In another print, the voluptuous curves of a woman taking an afternoon nap seem to make her teeter on her back. Although his works do not necessarily involve movement, with many of them being portraits, his playing of negative and positive space introduces a delightful animation.
Mori grounds his works in stable geometrical and repeating patterns, but some of these stencil shapes form prints so abstract their pictorial subjects are not immediately read, presenting images that are highly expressive. A black-and-white print of a couple embracing, for instance, appears as a multi-patterned length of fabric wrapped around itself; only after spending more time with the image do the negative spaces then reveal faces, flowing hair, and clothing. Such a scene reminds of some of the erotic shunga of the Edo period, particularly Kitagawa Utamaro’s “Poem of the Pillow” series, and Mori’s ability to evoke a similar sensualness with simplified shapes especially attests to his skill.
Considered one of the key figures of the sosaku-hanga, or “creative print” movement that valued the artist as the only creator, Mori’s process to create these lively images also sets him aside from the woodblock print tradition, which included many hands at work, from artist to carver to printer. His kappazuri, although more graphic and stark, are the result of a time-consuming, one-man process that involved cutting, pasting, lifting, and reinforcing handmade paper, making the ensuing neat prints all the more impressive. Works such as “Shinto Festival Procession” are especially exemplary of these efforts: small shapes and fine latticework construct a dense view of carriages, animals, and people. Although highly specific details are remiss, Mori’s precise manipulation of paper to form such a busy scene alludes to his intricate handiwork. It shows his grasp of a craft that reminds of one as elaborate and difficult as creating a delicate stained glass window.
Yoshitoshi Mori continues at Ronin Gallery (425 Madison Ave., Midtown, Manhattan) through March 3.