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Prairie Smoke

Prairie Smoke
March 22, 2002

by Victor M. Cassidy


We understand artists’ work much better after reading their journals and seeing their ideas form. Recently, three artists — Mu Xin, Michiko Itatani and Robert Lostutter — showed notebooks and journals in Chicago.

Holding his Life in his Mouth

Mu Xin was born on Feb. 14, 1927, in Wuzhen, Zhejiang Province, China, to a wealthy, aristocratic family. He received a classical Chinese education — calligraphy, poetry, painting and music — from private tutors. During his teens, while the Japanese, Guomindang and Communists fought over China, Mu Xin read through the library of a neighborhood intellectual, discovering the great ancient, Renaissance, and modern Western thinkers.

In 1946, Mu Xin entered the Shanghai Fine Art Institute where he studied Western-style painting by choice. He soon departed to work with Lin Fengmian, a painter who sought to achieve a synthesis of Chinese and modern European art. Mu Xin would evolve a personal style that combined traditional Chinese painting with the Italian Renaissance. He saw modernity as a system of thought growing from Renaissance humanism rather than an abstract or expressionist style of art. He felt closer to Leonardo than to Picasso or Matisse.

Though Mu Xin supported Mao Zedong and avoided political involvement, the Communists would not let him alone. Between 1949 and about 1971, his family was financially ruined. The Communists destroyed Mu Xin’s life’s work — 20 book-length manuscripts and hundreds of paintings. For 18 months, between 1971 and 1972, he was confined alone in the basement of an abandoned air-raid shelter in Shanghai. A dim gas lamp was all the light he had. Filthy water covered the floor. His captors fed him when they felt like it.

Forced to produce written “confessions,” Mu Xin pilfered some of his paper supply, wrote a journal of his thoughts, and sewed it page by page into his prison uniform. These notes — some 132 pages covered with 650,000 Chinese characters — survived intact. “I never abandoned my will,” he says. “I was rejected by the absurd world at the time, so I built a more reasonable but magic world in which I sincerely lived.”

After prison, Mu Xin served a hard labor sentence in a Shanghai factory. From 1977 to 1979, he was placed under house arrest. During those years, he secretly made 33 small landscape paintings in ink and gouache, which he took with him in 1982 when he was allowed to leave China. Since 1984, he has lived in Forest Hills, near New York City, and published 12 books, which are widely read in Taiwan and by Chinese expatriates.

Imagined Landscapes

Mu Xin’s Landscape Paintings and Prison Notes are on exhibition at the Smart Museum of Art on the University of Chicago campus through the end of March. The show originated at the Yale University Art Gallery and will travel to the Honolulu Academy of Arts, Hawaii, in October and November of this year.

The Prison Notes, tiny, blurred Chinese characters on thin yellow paper, helped Mu Xin maintain his sanity while imprisoned. Never published in any language, the notes are said to comprise imaginary conversations with Wang Wei, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Cezanne, and other figures from cultural history. Mu Xin does not wish to publish this manuscript, but he may have drawn on it in books he has written since 1982.

Mu Xin made the landscape paintings from memory and they have been called his conversation with Chinese history. They contain everything we expect in a Chinese painting — clouds, mountains, craggy rocks, water, pines, bamboo, footbridges, and pagodas. But there are no sages sitting by caves or expeditions through the countryside — no figures at all — and just a very few birds.

The artist used ink and gouache — materials that came to hand — and worked small — seven by thirteen inches — so he could hide the paintings from the Communists. Though clearly influenced by Leonardo, Mu Xin occasionally ventures into semi-abstraction and employs decalomania, a 20th-century technique.

In decalomania or transfer painting, the artist spreads gouache on a sheet of paper, presses a second piece upon it, and peels the second sheet away. The result is a wavy, exotic pattern that suggests fungi or sponge. Max Ernst used decalomania to great effect and Mu Xin, who may have known Ernst’s work, creates a fantasy atmosphere with it.

Overall, this is cramped, gloomy, claustrophobic work, which is what can be expected from a man who lived as Mu Xin did. There is also a sense of valediction here. In his conversations with Chinese history, Mu Xin seems to say farewell to one of the great civilizations of all time.

“In a gravely adverse situation, you are obliged to hold your own life in your mouth — like a tigress holding her young in her mouth — and be the first to advance — not retreat — to prove yourself worthy of your moral responsibility.” Mu Xin’s prison journal and landscape paintings are his tragic testament. He has endured and survived.

“Contemplative Inquiry”

Michiko Itatani, one of Chicago’s best-known artists, made one informal drawing every day for two years, which helped her develop new work. Itatani, a professor of painting and drawing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, has exhibited widely since she arrived from Japan in 1970.

The artist’s signature image — grids of tiny lines that create shallow layers of shifting planes — appears in almost every painting, drawing, and print that she has ever made. During the 70s and early 80s, she put this image into mystical pattern paintings that grew slowly larger and more complex. “My work is about human existence,” she says, “how the mind works.”

During 1984, large, bulky figures, floating in space or threatening to fall through it, entered Itatani’s work. These figures, which many saw as Michelangelesque, dominated one ambitious painting after another. They receded during 1997, hung in the background for awhile, and then were gone.

During this time of change in her career, the artist started a sketchbook. She fed her shifting planes image into a computer, experimented with scale and placement on the page, and printed variations on graph paper. Then she drew orderly fields of colored dots, ovals, curlicues, and other shapes on one of these printouts every day.

When Itatani’s dealers visited her studio to choose work for a forthcoming show, they noticed the journal, liked it, and asked her to provide 30 pages for exhibition with her new drawings. Itatani’s show, called “Contemplative Inquiry” went up at Printworks Gallery in January and February of 2002.

Itatani’s new drawings — and some collages she made with brushed-in backgrounds — are fresher and less strained than the earlier figure pieces. Her subject is human existence, as she says, but formally Itatani’s work is about pattern and surface. Figures, which imply narrative, never did fit. This artist has found her way.

Observations and Ideas

Robert Lostutter, another established Chicago artist, is best known for his bright, meticulously painted watercolors of men’s faces from which bird feathers grow. A museum curator recently approached Lostutter to propose a show on how his work comes about. The curator wants to exhibit finished watercolors next to the artist’s preparatory materials.

Lostutter says that he never really gave much thought to his methods. As he prepared for the curator’s visit by taking materials from storage, he “became conscious” of the role that notebooks play in his work.

“I carry a pocket notebook everywhere I go,” he says. “Many people do. When I find a size and type of notebook I like, I buy several because good ones can be hard to replace.” Lostutter constantly makes observations and gets ideas. He puts them down fast so he does not forget them. Mostly he draws faces or parts of them that eventually appear in his work.

“When I go to the movies, I look down the aisle at peoples’ ears,” he says. “I register variations in ears in my notebook — or I may go back home and draw them from memory. Sometimes I just stop what I’m doing and draw.”

Wondering whether anybody would be interested in his notebooks, Lostutter selected a few pages and framed them for a show, which runs at Carrie Secrist Gallery until the middle of March. We see winning little drawings that expose the anatomy of Lostutter’s images. His bird-men, minus their feathers, are flat-featured fellows with huge noses. One has a cone for a head. When the artist adds the feathers, we see the bright colors and don’t always notice what’s beneath.

Lostutter is hard at work on the museum exhibition, which has yet to be scheduled. “It’s taking a tremendous amount of time,” he says, “but it will be a dynamite show.”