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Inventories of Light

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Miyoko Ito: The Extraordinary American Artist who Created Inventories of Light

Miyoko Ito was a remarkable artist who left an indelible mark on American painting. Her unique body of work captures a lucid private vision that can only be expressed through her meticulous and sui generis technique. Although she was influential in her adopted city of Chicago, her art was largely overlooked by other art world powerhouses. However, a new exhibition at Matthew Marks gallery is finally putting her in the spotlight.

Mysterious and Profound

Ito’s paintings are enigmatic, allusive, playful, and profound. They depict objects that collapse into each other, forming off-kilter worlds within themselves. Recurring forms, such as rooms, mountains, lakes, popsicle sticks, licorice, strands of hair, and dynamite, are always on the cusp of transforming into something familiar. Her work exhibits an affinity for architectural structures, chairs, tables, and wood joinery. Yet, it also evokes the perception of an infant, where every element of the visible world is vivid, uncategorized, and identical to the self.

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The Power of Contrasts

The power of Ito’s paintings lies in the tension between the wild inventiveness of their spatial design and the rhythmic consistency of their surfaces. She employs short, horizontal brushstrokes to secure the paint to the canvas, creating a trembling luminosity against green and red backgrounds. The even dispersal of brushstrokes contrasts with the irregularity of her shapes. Thick enough to retain dimensionality yet thin enough to reveal the canvas texture, the paint showcases the meticulousness of her process. Original charcoal outlines are often visible between the shapes, suggesting that each painting is a continuous journey of discovery.

A World of Colors

Each of Ito’s works exhibits a tightly controlled palette while suggesting the infinite divisibility of the chromatic spectrum. Her skillful arrangement and calm modulation of planes of color create a mesmerizing drama. From low to high values, pastel yellows and tans blend seamlessly with saturated blues and reds. Every hue transition is registered cumulatively, as if each plane were taking an inventory of the light that strikes it. The surface effect achieved in Ito’s paintings is one of the most dazzling and perplexing aspects of her artistry.

Unconventional Canvases

Ito’s unconventional approach extends beyond her brushwork. Some of her canvases are only halfway nailed into the stretcher bars, causing carpet tacks to protrude from the sides. While the reason for this is not fully known, it adds a unique dimension to her work. These tacks make the paintings appear to float off the wall and draw attention to the canvas as a stretched object, suspended like a drumskin. This unconventional choice, reminiscent of fastening carpets to floors, exudes a sense of coolness and adds an intriguing layer to her art.

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Love of Paint and Restless Mind

Ito’s art reflects both meditation and restraint, as well as an exuberant love for paint itself. Her paintings showcase a mischievous staging of forms and an obsession with repetitive brushwork. Despite their tranquility, they also convey the restless mind of an artist seeking to understand her inner workings and her place in a chaotic world.

A Life Shaped by Experience

Born in Berkeley in 1918 to Japanese parents, Ito spent part of her childhood in rural Japan. Her formative years near Nagoya shaped her in profound ways and cultivated her love for landscape painting. Returning to the Bay Area, she studied art at the University of California, Berkeley, where she was influenced by Cézanne, Picasso, and synthetic cubism. However, her life took an unexpected turn when she and her husband were incarcerated at Tanforan, a prison camp for Japanese Americans during World War II.

Artistic Resilience

Ito’s time in Tanforan left an indelible mark on her. The barren landscape and the permeable boundary between confinement and freedom found in the camp’s architecture became recurring themes in her paintings. After her release, she continued her education at Smith College and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she thrived in the inclusive environment. Ito faced many challenges throughout her life, including illness, a double mastectomy, and other hardships. Yet, she persisted, creating art that showcased her unique vision and resilience.

A Legacy Revisited

Miyoko Ito’s art stands as a testament to her passion and talent. Her paintings, with their geometric precision, tactility of light, and radiant intelligence, exemplify her humility before the medium and her inner freedom. It is through her art that she found her purpose and expressed her deepest self. Today, her work continues to captivate audiences, and her legacy lives on.

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To learn more about Miyoko Ito and explore her extraordinary body of work, visit Ratingperson.

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