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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, April 18, 2010

Cut out for greatness

 •  Art calendar

By David A.M. Goldberg
Special to The Advertiser

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Ray Yoshida's "After An Hour," from 1971, evinces the strong influence of comic books in his artworks.

Brad Goda photo

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Through June 18

The Contemporary Museum at First Hawaiian Center


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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Yoshida's "Untitled (figure from behind)," from 1970, is felt-tip pen on paper, measuring 28 by 18 inches.

Hal Lum photo

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In terms of a popular culture, defined 140 characters at a time, the Ray Yoshida retrospective could be distilled to: "(1930-2009) #PopArt #Surrealism #Comics YAAAAAA! My whole is mirrored in the careful selection & arrangement of parts from elsewhere."

To date, however, tweets don't readily convey nuanced relationships of history and lineage. This is reason enough to spend some face-to-face time with Yoshida's paintings, drawings and especially his collages.

Without forcing an explicit timeline, the show presents a clear record of Yoshida's creative evolution, and emphasizes his remarkably consistent stylistic and thematic foundations. "Untitled (ladder)" makes a fine introduction, as it condenses the terrain covered by the rest of the show. This large-scale painting, executed in the late 1960s, features Yoshida's preferred compositional strategy: the grid, which he uses to organize comic book fragments, icons of superpower and action, cartoon characters and figures poised in little moments of panic, shock and failure. His brush is simultaneously graphic and organic, and makes use of a tightly constrained color palette of blues and grays.

Like an index of digital icons, each of these visual elements can be "linked" to another piece in the show that more deeply explores the particular technique or theme that Yoshida has summarized. On one side of a small building about to be struck by a fist there is a woven maze of spaghetti-like curves that relate to the sinewy bands of vibrating energy that surround figures such as those found in "Untitled (figure from behind)" and an early abstract work in graphite on paper.

Near the bottom of "ladder" there is a wedge striated by two-tone silhouette shapes that evoke mountain ranges and data graphs. This icon could open any number of his untitled pieces that feature fanciful shapes that are sometimes explicitly identified as plants or heads, but also read as architectural ornaments or ambiguous machinery.

One cannot miss the centralized portrait of Theodore the chipmunk (contemplating the ladder), the cartoon God finger shooting some kind of heat ray, or the anxious female character who would be right at home in the pages of Raw Graphix magazine. The appropriation of popular media, particularly comic books, plays a huge role in Yoshida's later work, but is also clearly visible in other work.

In two untitled paintings opposite "Untitled (ladder)," Yoshida critically and humorously addresses consumerism. True to American pop art, both are (hand-rendered) derivatives of advertising aesthetics. Figures with their heads replaced by abstract commodities and stylized mutations lurk in the foreground among ladders, stairwells, pipes and cables leading to nowhere. Drug capsules (or are they bacteria?) float around them, with Superman's silhouette and optimistic lettering that reads "extraordinary values" and "yours for excellent uplift."

One can read Yoshida's work as a response to the simultaneous fragmentation and high-speed flow that characterizes the modern visual environment; even relatively sedate urban Hawai'i can relate to the racing swarm of cloud/car traffic reflected in works such as "Scamper." However, Yoshida is far from heavy-handed. Though working in Chicago through the racially charged '60s, his identity references are rare and oblique.

The minimalist mask with canted eyes hovering over the hazy earth-tone landscape of "Coexistence: Asian" is ... inscrutable? Meanwhile, the crouching subject in "After An Hour" is surrounded by shattered white folks, his speech a garbled mashup of superhero narrative.

Such comics-based collages harness, catalog and diagram the pure graphic energy stored in drawings of windows, drapes and bedspreads, folds of clothing, and characters' hairstyles. He excises most subjects and leaves behind pulp fragments of gesture, decor and selected speech bubbles that seem to summarize an essence of American culture: "Uh-oh! Yaaaaaaaaa! Urgh. Ewwww, aawoooooo! Yipes!"

Yoshida closely studied American comics, and left us the forensic evidence in pieces like "Activated Apparel" and "Backs." Though they read like the results of some surrealist visual search engine, such pieces are phenomenal for achieving like comic book pages visual, tonal and rhythmic unity across the gutters of white space between their elements. They are less appropriations [0xe0] la Lichtenstein or Warhol than they are two-dimensional sculptures "carved" from solid blocks of visual culture. Yoshida saw beyond the aesthetics of a mass production process and instead recognized his aesthetics embedded in them, and found the pattern of his work inside the turbulence of the flow.