Yuji Hiratsuka

Augen Gallery, Portland, OR

by Richard Speer

        With technical finesse, impish humor, and a sense of the bizarre, Yuji Hiratsuka updated the traditional Japanese ukiyo-e woodcut with intaglio printmaking techniques and contemporary imagery.  The Osaka-born, Oregon-based artist set stylized figures against richly hued backgrounds that were dense with semi-abstract forms.  In prints and collages, he affixed tissue-thin mulberry paper to rag paper using a chine collé process, heightening texturality in passages where rough edges abutted one another, interlocking like puzzle pieces.

        Throughout the exhibition, Hiratsuka employed doubled or mirrored imagery, as in the twin sunflowers in Pondering Muse, the two sets of hands in Confidential Talk, and the two figures in the pieces Gossip and Deliberation.  The works’ titles referred to the figures as “muses” and “fashionistas,” characterizations in keeping with the alternately grave and whimsical manners in which the artist depicted them.  Attired in Western garb rather than the traditional costumes found in 17th Century ukiyo-e, the figures were without exception presented with their eyes hidden from the viewer—sometimes behind bushy bangs or headdresses, other times cropped out of the composition altogether.  This eyeless portrayal lent a blank affect recalling the depersonalization typical of late Pop artist Tom Wesselmann’s eyeless, noseless female nudes.

The habitués of Hiratsuka’s world had a decorous, theatrical quality, often presented in profile, their disproportionately spindly legs tucked under one another formally.  In works such as Reflection, these figures were consumed in private musings, while in Gossip and Confidential Talk they stood engaged in dialogues whose content was left to the viewer to guess.  Across the spectrum of mise-en-scènes, floral and vegetal motifs added vitality and expansiveness to pictorial environments that might otherwise have seemed claustrophobic.  The works’ bright, well-balanced palette, jaunty compositions, oddly expressionless faces fostered a feeling of the uncanny and off-kilter, which ultimately proved invigorating.

—Richard Speer