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A new show opened at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art last weekend. Already a host to a retrospective of the artist Charles Garabedian (open through April 17), the museum now has a second small feature show entitled “Presenting Noh Drama: Theater Prints of Tsukioka Kōgyo.”
Garabedian’s work is on a large scale, with bright colors and loose interpretations on the human form. Kogyo’s prints are relatively small and precisely crafted. They serve as a counterpoint to Garabedian’s work in almost every way. Even if you’ve already seen the first exhibit, the combination of the two shows is an experience worth returning for.
Tsukioka Kogyo, who lived from 1869-1927, worked on the series “One Hundred Noh Plays” circa 1922-26. Approximately 60 of the prints are on display. The exhibit’s aim was to capture the spirit of Noh theatre, a style which dates back to the 14th century in Japan. The various prints are arranged around the gallery to simulate the experience of attending Noh theatre, which lasts for hours and includes many different performances.
The prints themselves are very beautiful. Drawing on Western influences such as watercolor and photography, Kogyo created images both minimalist and detailed. A main figure is highlighted, maybe with one or two objects, against a simple, abstracted background. There is considerable detail in the carving, but the artist’s skill lies in his layering and use of color. A woman dressed in red pops out against an aquamarine background. The figure of a man with bright blue clothing is set off against a simple gray line drawing of a waterfall. The color is used sparingly but with precision. The papers’ natural color is the main tone in many of the pieces, with the backgrounds as abstracted as their counterpoints in theatre.
The influence of photography on the work is clear. The figures are posed as though they were captured by a photographer’s lens with arms stuck at awkward positions and half-completed actions, frozen in place. The laws of perspective and representation are obeyed to the letter. I see the work as a series of photographs taken from the past, recording and preserving history that had already passed.
In contrast to “One Hundred Noh Plays,” the Charles Garabedian retrospective does not require an appreciation for detail. His style is indefinable yet distinct, and his works in the show date from the late ’60s to 2009. The thread that connects each image is his representation of the human form. Exemplified by the forms in “Prehistoric Figures” (1978-80), Garabedian’s men and women are soft, pink and flaccid. There is no trace of the rigid human form idealized by the white marble statues of Greece and Rome which grace the museum’s front lobby, though allusions to such classics fill the works. His rendering of the form is sloppy, even childlike, but it strips away any pretensions about the perfection of humanity. If the figures in his work are beautiful, it’s an inner beauty. The works are almost unpleasant to look at because they cut to the core of the human condition: We, as a species, are not perfect, and we are kidding ourselves if we think we are.
The two centerpieces of the show are “The Spring For Which I Longed” (2001-03) and “September Song” (2001-04). Approximately 12’ by 24,’ these massive canvases sit near each other in the main gallery. The former is a picture of women looking at the sea, the latter a picture of a man (a modern Odysseus) adrift. In these two works we can see on a massive scale a contemplation of the human condition. In retrospect, these works of art enable us to see all of Garabedian’s spontaneous emotions and appreciate how he makes sense of the world.
The Santa Barbara Museum of Art is open Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. with a $6 student admission Tuesday through Saturday and free admission on Sunday.