Woodblock printmaking of Matsubara celebrated

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Naoko Matsubara, the daughter of a Shinto priest who was head of the historic Kenkun Shrine in Kyoto, made a bold choice for a young woman from a conservative Japanese family. When awarded a Fulbright fellowship in 1961 she left the island nation to pursue a master's degree in fine art at Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University).

Thus began a story, and that story led to a picture. And that picture led to a life dedicated to the creation of beauty and the mastery of woodblock printmaking.

All come together this week at Chatham University and Carnegie Museum of Art in a celebration of the internationally acclaimed artist.

While a grad student, Matsubara attended a concert by Indian musician Ravi Shankar at Chatham and was so inspired by the experience that she went to her studio the next day and attempted to capture it as an image.

She turned for expression to the woodblock print, a medium to which she had been exposed but which she had not committed herself to as an artist.

The resultant depiction, "Ravi Shankar," shows him seated cross-legged on the floor with eyes shut, in communion with his sitar. The work is passionate but meditative, the musician one with his instrument, the figure not restrained by but living within the woodblock, arising out of, yet resting within the grain.

The Shankar print "galvanized Matsubara's talents and energies," writes Harvard University professor emeritus John Rosenfield in his introduction to "Tree Spirit: The Woodcuts of Naoko Matsubara," the definitive 2003 book on the artist. After that, Matsubara began working 10-hour days, he writes, and friends brought food to her studio so that she would stop to eat.

It was the beginning of an illustrious career that is nearing its fifth decade and is being marked by exhibitions of her work and by events that explore Japanese culture.

The first event honoring the artistwill be held on the Chatham campus in conjunction with "Matsubara: Illuminations," which displays 18 original prints, six book projects and three watercolor handscrolls, the only such works created by the artist.

At 3 p.m. Tuesday, Sandy Kita, the exhibition curator and Chatham Senior Scholar, will present a lecture on Matsubara's work followed by a reception with the artist until 7 p.m. At 4 p.m. Wednesday a panel on "The Art of the Book," moderated by Autumn House Press founder and editor-in-chief/poetry editor Michael Simms, will discuss handmade books and include a presentation by Matsubara. Both are free and open to the public, but space is limited.

Chatham's connections to Matsubara span decades, from the Shankar concert to Chatham President Esther Barazzone's well-regarded collection of Japanese woodblock prints, which includes some by Matsubara loaned to each exhibition.

Matsubara's early work is representational, but Kita notes that the way the artist balances the compositions' black and white spaces creates abstract areas within those positives and negatives. "[The early prints] are simultaneously representational, but constructed with elements that function as abstraction," Kita says.

Over time, the emphasis flip flops, and Matsubara's prints become colorful and "appear quite abstract in nature, but are based upon real people, places and events in her life."

"Her images, being abstract but representational, are very much like words," Kita says, which may explain the artist's interest in the books that she not so much illustrates but illuminates via a dialogue between imagery and text.

Kita finds Matsubara's willingness to experiment, and thus to evolve, particularly compelling, and credits her for avoiding becoming stuck in a signature style as some artists do.

That creative spontaneity is one benefit, Kita feels, of being isolated from market considerations. "She lived in a much more scholarly environment. She was freer than artists working in the commercial world."

"Matsubara: A Celebration in Pittsburgh," at the Carnegie, comprises 66 works that span the artist's career.

The Carnegie exhibition opens Saturday with a day of family programming and a lecture by Matsubara. The Chatham gallery also will be open Saturday.

"Her work is really compelling and speaks for itself," says Amanda Zehnder, exhibition curator and Carnegie assistant curator of fine arts. "It has an interesting vitality and is very engaging."

Zehnder says Matsubara, who lives near Toronto with her husband, art historian David Waterhouse, and has traveled extensively, has an "interest in multiculturalism and international subjects that has been very pronounced throughout her career."

The earliest print in the exhibition, made in 1957 while Matsubara was an undergraduate at then Kyoto City College of Art, depicts "Chinese Theatre" actors.

Other subjects range from a series of European cathedrals to Indian, Persian and Japanese dancers. Trees are an especially important and recurring theme.

Pittsburgh views include an appropriately ornamental Phipps Conservatory and a complexly patterned 1962 interpretation of the "Westinghouse Factory," recently purchased by the museum.

Several prints are from the exceptional James B. Austin collection bequeathed to the Carnegie in 1989. Austin knew Matsubara and maintained contact with her after she left Pittsburgh. Other works were lent by Pittsburgh collectors and by the artist.

Together, the exhibitions present an opportunity to explore a vital international artist with local ties.

"The whole Pittsburgh story is important and interesting to think about," Zehnder says. "[It's one more example of] the way Pittsburgh has impacted the art world in a multitude of ways."

Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas can be reached at mthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1925.


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