Nanaimo Art Gallery (NAG) presents Chronicles of Form and Place, a touring exhibition of the acclaimed Canadian artist Takeo Tanabe. Organized by Burnaby Art Gallery, the exhibition encompasses six decades of Tanabe’s work in different styles such as drawing, print, and watercolor painting. While paper is the exclusive medium featured in the exhibition, genres vary from design to abstraction, but the most prominent by far are drawings and paintings of Canadian landscape. It is also a unique opportunity for NAG to feature an artist of a national caliber.
“Takeo Tanabe is the most important artist we have posted since I’ve been at VIU,” NAG’s curator Dr. Justin McGrail says.
Darrin Martens, curator of Chronicles of Form and Place, says the goal of the retrospective was “to create a conversation about one’s work, and signify and embody the career that spans over six decades.”
The gallery intentionally grouped the works according to their visual qualities instead of following the established chronological order. For McGrail, it was a way to refresh the idea of the show with the gallery’s own creative input.
“Chronological sequencing conveys importance,” he says, “but what we wanted to challenge is the viewer’s experience.”
The selection of works in Chronicles of Form and Place reveals an artist influenced by the places he visits and people he works with.
“Tanabe is a West Coast painter, but a world artist,” Martens says. “He is well traveled, interested in and absorbing different art modes. He is curious. He is mining the depths of places and experiences. There is not one single trajectory in his work where he does only one thing very well. He is interested in exploring different ways of art.”
Although there are several styles and modes of work featured in the exhibition, all offer different ways of approaching the landscape. In his early works, Tanabe sees the landscape as a subject to be studied and captured, but as one moves into his later art, we can feel a stronger connection and the physicality of being in a space.
In the group of works inspired by Japanese Sumi paintings, Tanabe directly engages in the question of identity. He studied the traditional Sumi painting in Japan, while exploring his own Japanese roots. This process reflects in the caligraphic elements and dominant colors.
“They’re not Sumi per se, because he’s using paint as opposed to ink, but they are incredibly strong,” McGrail says.
“The experience and the time spent learning the Japanese brush painting influenced his style and approach to both large canvases and smaller format watercolors,” Martens adds. “These works look very spontaneous but are in fact the opposite—controlled, considered, thoughtful, and with a strong sense of composition and space.”
Sense of space seems to be one of the elements that transcend the gap between not only Tanabe’s art and the layout of the exhibition, but the individual works in relation with one another. “Yellow Sky,” for example, is one of the acrylic paintings that, according to McGrail, is the only work to match the Sumi pieces in boldness of colour and employment of empty space as part of the work.
“The white space is just as articulate and important as the yellow; it becomes part of the scene,” he says. “No other works would resonate next to each other like these two.”
Other groupings include bright colored felt-pen drawings from the late 1960s carrying the style the Vancouver school Tanabe belonged to along with Gary Lee Nova or Michael Morris. Loosely figurative watercolours, on the other hand, portray the typical BC late winter landscape, subdued and soaked with rainwater. He brings so much physical reality to these paintings that we can almost feel they are still wet.
None of the works, needless to say, are preparatory sketches—they are finished pieces, as Tanabe does not believe in making sketches and transforming them with another medium.
Watercolour paintings of mountains bring naturalistic style to the collection. The composition, cropping, and the almost naturalistic approach to the subject, the purposeful subtlety and attention to detail, show the influence of photography which was among Tanabe’s interests at the time.
Graphite drawings of forest scenes continue Tanabe’s true-to-nature approach. McGrail says the forest drawings are likely to appeal to most viewers, partly because they are highly naturalistic, but also because they allow the visitors to picture themselves in the forest.
The collection of graphite drawings of the prairies at night portends one of the most prominent parts of the exhibition. In these drawings, Tanabe is capturing the moment of disappearing light and form where the horizon diminishes and the sky and the land become one.
“If you’ve ever been in the prairies, you know that sunset takes hours to go down and the sky turns brilliant colours,” Martens says. “After the sun sets, all you see is blackness. You know you’re in the presence of something, but there is also this absence in the blackness. In that particular space of light disappearing, all you have left is the horizon line.”
To McGrail, these are the most impressive works in terms of technical skill and originality.
“There is something minimal about these works, and I find that’s what makes Tanabe very 20th century, very modernist,” he says. He is interested in maximum impact with minimum effort.”
They are heavily worked over, layered and erased, but the visual effect is very subtle, evoking a look through different shades of darkness with darker and lighter patches of graphite layers.
“Darkness is not uniform. There’s no black, just degrees of the absence of light,” McGrail says. “They are quiet and contemplative, but there’s something grand in the image.” He says the simplicity of the style only amplifies the majestic. There’s so little there.”
Like all other works featured in the exhibition, the graphite landscapes are devoid of human figure. McGrail explains that Tanabe does not paint people, and prefers the landscape without figures.
“I like to think that the human in the picture is the viewer,” McGrail says. “We are the figure. We are supposed to be in that space. You are there, and if the frame were more reflected, we would see ourselves reflected in the picture.”
Chronicles of Form and Place will run until April 12 in the campus branch of Nanaimo Art Gallery.