“I have no place to take myself except painting.”

Hello painters,

I hope you enjoyed our interview with Lilly Saywitz last week. If you remember reading through Lilly’s list of artistic inspirations, you might have noticed a peculiar name: The Hairy Who. This is not one specific hirsute individual, but a group of artists who attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the late 1960s.

I had some familiarity with the roster of artists in this group, but while I was clicking around I discovered the name of an artist affiliated with this group, but it wasn’t one I had heard before: Miyoko Ito.

Miyoko Ito was friendly with and exhibited with the Imagists, yet her quiet abstracted landscapes are wildly different from the cartoonish influences and figurative references found in so many Imagist works.

Ito’s visual style was out of step with her times, an aspect many articles and exhibition statements reference as a reason her work is not more widely known outside of Chicago. The waves of abstract expressionism, minimalism, and pop-art washed over her, but she did not alter her course.

“To be called an old-lady painter, passé, at age thirty, thirty-one, is very hard to take,” the artist recalled in a 1978 interview, “At the same time, I had no choice. (This quote and the above image are taken from this brief Art Forum article about the artist.)

From what I’ve read, it doesn’t sound like Ito was a hermit: she was able to maintain her friendships socially while completely isolating herself in terms of her images. In this way, I can’t help but make the connection between her and Fairfield Porter — because I think about Porter’s work a lot, myself. Porter, despite a close friendship with Willem de Kooning and other abstract expressionists, resolutely continued to paint his landscapes and portraits without caring about the dominant trend in painting during his time.

There are no doubt countless other artists who have been swept aside because their work doesn’t fit into the dominant genre or narrative of art-making in their specific year, decade, or century. So for an artist to be spotlighted years or decades or centuries later because of their heterodoxy, someone else at the time must have noticed something special in what they were doing. Ito did exhibit her work in Chicago and in NYC, but it failed to fit into the larger art historical narrative.

Ito’s work is harder to classify than that of Porter and Milton Avery (another middle American century painter), who painted in varying levels of abstraction but whose work is firmly rooted in the landscape. Ito’s work has landscape references and creates impressions of space and dimension but remains otherworldly, like a recognition of her not-belongingness, or an escape hatch that she is hoping to slip through unnoticed.

When I saw the first few images of Ito’s work, I didn’t want to say or write anything about them, but just stare at the beautiful gradients. I felt like they didn’t need any explaining or describing of any kind, and that speaking about the work would dispel the bubble of magic that the paintings were suspended within. These pieces are masterpieces of atmosphere and mood setting, but the mood is not immediately obvious or nameable, which adds to the allure.

I consistently instruct my students to get better at describing and talking about their feelings and reactions to the work they’re making and seeing. Trying to name your reaction to a specific decision within a painting will help you make better choices when it comes to creating your own work. It’s also very useful to describe your favorable and unfavorable reactions to a piece of artwork, because you might realize that your first impression was mistaken in some way the more you turn it over in your mind.

So despite that advice, maybe you will forgive me here for not wanting to dive too deep into my thoughts about Ito’s work. I’d rather just dive into the spaces the paintings open up instead. I’ll finish with another quote from the Art Forum piece:

“Every time I have a problem, I go deeper and deeper into painting,” Ito once said. “I have no place to take myself except painting.” Given the dislocation, internment, and belatedness that mark the artist’s biography, it’s significant that Ito understood her medium in explicitly spatial, situated terms—as a “place” to be entered and inhabited.

Paintings links and news

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This week, I’ve been listening to Late Night Tales, a series of DJ sets put together by various musicians. I recommend this one by the group BADBADNOTGOOD:

Late Night Tales - BADBADNOTGOOD (opens on Spotify)

This mix features some great tracks like these (opens in YouTube):

Erasmo Carlos - Vida Antiga
Admas - Anchi Bale Game
Charlotte Day Wilson - Work
Steve Kuhn - The Meaning of Love

That’s all for this week folks. See you next time, and happy painting
(° ͜ʖ͡°)

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