Examiner Contributor
Naoko’s World
Through Oct. 11
Azuma Gallery
530 – 1st Avenue S.

Thanks to Ravi Shankar, Naoko Matsubara found her niche in printmaking.

In 1961, on a Fulbright Scholarship at the Carnegie Institute of Art in Pittsburgh (now Carnegie Mellon University), 24-year-old grad student Matsubara was searching for a medium of expression she could call her own. A fateful evening in the presence of Ravi Shankar performing his music on sitar in concert launched her on a feverish mission to describe the man in a medium appropriate to convey her experience of being “totally, utterly mesmerized.”

When she had settled upon depicting him in a woodcut print, all that could be located to use was fir plywood. It would have to do, along with a couple of woodcutting tools she happened to carry along with her from Japan. The long and arduous task of rendering his image and her experience into a woodblock print (fir plywood is extremely difficult to work with) turned out to be the revelation for which she had been searching.

Today, at age 68, Matsubara remains a vital artist and personality. The desire to explore new vistas in her art still drives this unique artist. After countless accolades and honors, exhibitions and books, she is still very much approachable, ready to bestow stories if you will listen. She makes no apologies for using power tools these days to help her create her woodcuts. She has always created directly on wood (reminiscent of a major influence and mentor, the great Japanese woodblock print artist, Shiko Munakata, “Most of us can be clever and skillful, but he was an original, the god of woodcuts,”) without the use of tracings on paper.

Matsubara’s one-woman exhibition at Azuma Gallery is a rare opportunity to view a wide sampling of an artist whose mastery of the woodcut print is evident in the sure lines and forms sliced and gouged from wood that coalesce into powerful graphic images. A recent work, “Sea Flying” (2001), captures the vertical movement of a roiling sea, uncontrolled, from a perspective that dwarfs human arrogance.

Color is an intuitive ingredient in Matsubara’s prints. She uses oil-based ink because of its intensity and ease in mixing to generate the color she is looking for. Although her black and white work delivers a stronger graphic punch, the colors she chooses to print with in works such as “Kitayama” (1979), are used for a purpose. Upon first glance, one sees an ordinary tree landscape rendered in two colors, blue and green. A second look from a distance is rewarded with a feeling of being transported to a misty woodland.

Although Matsubara has lived most of her adult life on the North American continent, a feature not to be denied is her Japanese heritage. Depictions of Japanese folktales, festivals, noh actors, dancers, and landscapes, rendered with liveliness and movement in mind, make up the bulk of the show. “Nishiki” (1977) throbs with the rhythms of market day activities. Tiled roofs, signs and human figures are jammed into a tight view. “Insect Summer” (1971) evokes the quiet mood of summer with the intermingling of lines that form the stacks of insect cages from which dragonflies escape.

Matsubara’s compositions delve into the beauty of the moment—filled with life. The lines and forms she uses are rough and graphic in nature. They are charged with the tension of knife to wood and of the resistance of wood to knife.

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