Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Exhibition at the UAM on the CSULB campus - A review of "Traditions Transfigured: The Noh Masks of Bidou Yamaguchi" by Helen Cox

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Thoughts on Traditions Transfigured:  The Noh Masks of Bidou Yamaguchi

Review by Helen Cox, January 28, 2014

 I knew nothing of Noh Masks when I went to the gallery, so I read the signs.  I was struck by the goal of the masks:  “incremental innovation within tradition.”  By allowing innovation, there is room for creation and evolving art forms, instead of the emptiness and stagnation in repetition.

 The craftsmanship in the masks is superb.  Innovations are left for the creative aspects; there are strict rules for the craft.  Apparently the use of sandpaper is considered cheating, so the artists who carve these very smooth masks have to be highly skilled and patient.  Their skills extend to painting.  Each strand of hair must be painted with one brush stroke so the thickness of the hair does not change, as it would if the brush were lifted and then replaced.  I can imagine the hours of practice required!  After all that careful work, the masks are then stressed with a brush and a secret formula, to make them look old.

First on display is Yamaguchi’s skill in the traditional art form. Then, the artist became interested in transforming two-dimensional Japanese images into three-dimensional masks. Not only did he apply the Noh mask craft to something new, but he demonstrated innovation within the construction of the mask, employing a modern interpretation to facial features. For example, the nose on the Sharaku print mask is bent to the side, as it was drawn in the three-quarter view of the print. The mouths of the women end half-way across the face. This distortion is meaningful, not random. When viewed from a particular perspective, the mask looks identical to the print or painting.

This woodcut Actor Print is on display with masks, Sharaku, Japan, Oban size, circa 1794
In his third stage, Yamaguchi transformed female icons from European art into Noh masks.  He hit all the big ones:   DaVinci, Vermeer, Velasquez, Münch, Botticelli, etc.  His recreation of the Mona Lisa was spectacular.  I enjoyed the mask more than I enjoyed the original painting (seen ten feet away, through glass and surrounded by idiots with their phone cameras who did not even look at the painting).   He brought back the element in the Mona Lisa that got art historians so excited about the image, before it became a cliché of itself.

 When he created the European art, he even matched the brush strokes to those in the paintings, and of course he aged them in proper Noh tradition.  Some of his innovations were not as successful.  He missed the delicate sensuality of the lips in the Vermeer portrait and made them too red and sloppy, as though her lipstick smeared.  Her tongue is grotesque.  Maria Teresa (Velasquez) had a more bulbous nose and her lips were not quite so turned up; in the mask, she was given a “nose job” which took away some of her personality.  Overall, however, the masks were fantastic, alive, and beautiful.  It was a wonderful way to re-experience images that have become overly familiar.

Note from RS - This notable exhibition will be on display at the UAM until April 13th & was curated under the guidance of Professor Kendall Brown (Interim Director of the Museum Studies Program) by Art History graduate students Karenina Karyodi, Lauren Nochalla, Kristy Odett & Ariana Rizo. A published catalogue accompanies the exhibition & is on sale at the University Art Museum.