Grace, Simplicity, and Humor: The Art of Kaneko Johkoh

Nothing and Heart I, Paintings27 x 37

My concept is ‘Simple and Natural,’” says Kanekoh Johkoh, a Japanese citizen now living and working in Vancouver, British Columbia. “My aim is to express things as they are.”
    Employing the traditional materials of Sumi ink and a kind of Japanese rice paper called Washi, Johkoh has evolved a refreshingly contemporary style. As much as any Abstract Expressionist “action painter,” she works spontaneously without a predetermined plan or preliminary studies. She also departs from tradition by adding collage elements to some of her ink paintings. However, these  innovative additions are often either pieces of Washi paper pre-painted with colorful marbling techniques –– or small objects, such as origami figures that lend an almost 3-D feeling to the work. 
    Johkoh credits Zen Buddhism with helping her to maintain the calm disposition everywhere evident in her paintings, which also exude a humor that is another aspect of the Zen philosophy.
    In a picture called “Let’s Go Home,” for one buoyant example, the beams radiating from the big Happy Face sun touch the ground, making the fiery ball appear to be doing cartwheels while the simplified figures standing nearby turn into question marks. In another spare ink painting mysteriously titled “Nothing and Heart II,” a small female figure appears to have been printed directly onto the paper in the manner of a stamp with a tube of watercolor dipped in Sumi ink, to which Johkoh has added a delicate little doll-like head. But don’t look now: the cute little figure appears about to be engulfed by bold, gracefully curves lines made with a broad brush that suggest Hokusai’s famous “Wave!”
    Pressed to compare Kaneko Johkoh’s personal sign language to Western painters, the two who come most immediately to mind are Paul Klee and Joan Miro, both of whom have a similarly whimsical imagination and fanciful energy. But, on second thought, Johkoh also has qualities in common with Alexander Calder as well. These are especially apparent in a composition she calls “Circus Folks I,” where a few graceful black lines, strokes, and splotches of red opaque watercolor simultaneously make up what appears to be the large face of a clown and suggest not only the smaller figures of acrobats but also a flying trapeze. Few other artists either in East or West, however, manage to evoke so much with such economical ease.
    One of Johkoh’s most spare and engaging compositions is “Self Portrait,” in which another shape resembling a question mark (albeit positioned backwards, with its dot appearing to roll slightly away from its larger curve), is combined with a pair of eyes apparently made with two buttons collaged onto the rice paper. Then there is another charming work called “Riverbank Under the Sun,” in which three little ducks, so identical as to suggest rubber bathtub duckies, are glimpsed through the gracefully curving vertical strokes of a broad brush with the hairs spread so that each produces the effect of multiple blades of breeze-blown grass.
    Here, too, all it takes for Kanekoh Johkoh to bring the entire scene into focus in her own inimitable manner is a few spatters of diluted red watercolor that evoke the beauty of sunlight sparkling on the ripples of a pond.

–– J. Sander Eaton

Kaneko Johkoh, Agora Gallery 530 West 25th St., June 4 - 25, 2013
Reception: Thursday, June 6, 6 - 8 pm.

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