A visit to the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena proves that the cultural divide between a one-time teenage graffiti artist from East Los Angeles and a 19th century Japanese woodblock print master is narrower than you might think.
Separate exhibitions of works by internationally recognized contemporary painter Gajin Fujita, who was born and raised in Boyle Heights, and by revered woodblock print artist Tsukioka Yoshitoshi occupy separate galleries, yet they are connected by what fuels their work: humor, myth and story, social commentary, profound technical accomplishment, and Fujita’s deep engagement with traditional Japanese woodblock prints.
“I think when you’re here in the space,” said curator Bridget Bray, “each exhibition makes such a deep impression that it’s clear why they almost demand to be in the museum at the same time and why it appealed to us to host them.”
In the small Focus Gallery, “Gajin Fujita: Ukiyo-E in Contemporary Painting” features five works executed in spray paint and markers on wood panels gilded with gold and silver leaf. Created by Fujita between 2004 and 2011, these paintings are a representative sampling of the artist’s work, which Los Angeles Times critic Christopher Knight called “the most important 21st century iteration of graffiti's influence on art.”
Across six panels, two samurai warriors in vividly patterned traditional armor do battle in the gritty Venice Beach-inspired “Shoreline Duel.” In the background are dripping tags and a curling blue ocean. Dominant in the foreground, the word “Duel” is rendered in a khaki camouflage design.
A nearby small panel featuring a chubby youth grasping an oversized and rather perturbed-looking carp in a bubbling stream would seem an abrupt departure, until a closer look at Fujita’s humorous “Golden Boy” reveals small “LA” and “Demon” tattoos on the boy’s arm and round belly.
“Masterpieces of Tsukioka Yoshitoshi,” in the museum’s main galleries, consists of more than 100 pieces, mostly woodblock prints so colorful and lively that they appear contemporary. Their condition is all the more remarkable because woodblock prints were not always revered museum pieces, but simply grist for the mass media mill of their time.
There are also drawings, illustrated books — a precursor to the manga and anime of today — and an original carved wood block on display.
The museum is hosting the only North American stop for this major exhibition that spans Yoshitoshi’s groundbreaking evolution as an artist from his first print in 1853 to some of his last, circa 1892.
The witty and serious works encompass Japanese folklore and the doings of “fashionable actors” and shady ladies, as well as the seismic societal shifts that occurred as Japan opened its borders to cultural exchange and trade with the West.
A woman reads a newspaper and laments the sad state of journalism in a print entitled “I Want to Cancel My Subscription.” A vixen gazes at her reflection in a moonlit pond. Visitors in Western dress promenade on a bridge overlooking a powerful steam locomotive.
Common to the works are the striking variety and intricacy of textile patterns rendered in many colors. “I sometimes think if a pattern existed, it probably is encapsulated somewhere in the Yoshitoshi prints,” said Bray.
Each print element required a separate wood block process, yet each has been layered by artisans in perfect register, demonstrating jaw-dropping technical mastery.
“That’s something that you see resonating through Gajin’s work,” Bray noted — “a desire to express his concepts through a high level of technical achievement. Both Gajin and Yoshitoshi’s works are expressions of urban life and are done with this great combination of wry humor and technical mastery,” she added. “I think that’s what makes them so appealing.”
After viewing the Yoshitoshi prints, visitors who return to the Focus Gallery may find a deeper appreciation for Fujita’s engagement with this classic Asian art form and his own iconic L.A.-centric street art.
Fujita, whose works have been exhibited at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art and other major museums in the U.S. and Europe, grew up surrounded by art. His mother is a restorer of Japanese antiquities. His late father was an abstract landscape artist.
Fujita’s impassioned participation in the shadowy world of graffiti writing began in grade school. In the 1980s, Fujita and his crew were known for elaborate graffiti designs, particularly in the Belmont tunnel area — now a condominium site — on the outskirts of downtown Los Angeles. It was one of the areas “that were kind of sanctioned for graffiti writers to congregate and do our stuff without fear of authority,” Fujita said.
Steered by mentors along the way, Fujita earned a BFA from the Otis College of Art and Design. He found his singular artistic voice during graduate studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas with mentor and provocative art critic Dave Hickey, who suggested that “in fine art you ought to at least try to violate people’s expectations,” Fujita said.
Taking the advice to heart, Fujita, long intrigued with traditional Japanese woodblock print art of the 17th to 19th centuries, turned to classic shunga — erotic woodblock prints — and layered elements of those images on a gilded surface with graffiti and tags. That first painting was an epiphany, he said.
Fujita, whose work also references the art of Japanese screens and sliding doors in Japanese architecture, says he still feels humbled by the accomplishments of Yoshitoshi and other woodblock print artists of the past.
“To this day, I’m blown away by what they did,” Fujita said. “I’m always saying to myself, how can I get to this level? When am I going to be able to achieve some of the things that these guys mastered? The intrigue for me is endless. It’s such a huge, rich bed of information.
“That’s the great thing about art in general,” added Fujita, currently at work on new paintings that will be shown in early 2014 at Haunch of Venison in London, a noted gallery exhibiting leading contemporary artists. “That there are infinite ideas still to be discovered.”
LYNNE HEFFLEY writes about theater and culture for Marquee.
“Masterpieces of Tsukioka Yoshitoshi “ (through Aug. 12) and “Gajin Fujita: Ukiyo-E in Contemporary Painting” (through Oct. 7)
Where: Pacific Asia Museum 46 N. Los Robles Ave., Pasadena.