Sheehan Gallery Prepares to Open Mokuhanga Exhibit

James Kennedy

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Creating art can take a lot of time and effort, but putting together a collection of art can take even longer. “Abstract American Mokuhanga,” which opens in the Donald Sheehan Gallery next Wednesday, Feb. 19, has been years in the making.

“This exhibition has probably been in the making for about two years,” said Director of Sheehan Gallery Daniel Forbes.

The exhibit showcases the Japanese style of Mokuhanga, or woodblock printing, which has gained widespread recognition in both Japan and the West over several centuries and influenced European and American art.

“From around 1890, French painters like Pissaro, Cassatt, Gauguin, Degas, Van Gogh and, most famously, Toulouse-Lautrec discovered the Japanese color print and saw in them a style that appealed to their sense of design and color,” said Assistant Professor of Foreign Languages and Literature-Japanese Akira Takemoto, a co-curator of the exhibit.

The printmaking technique remained popular in the West and went on to influence artists of different styles. However, Western artists didn’t begin to travel to Japan to learn the original Mokuhanga technique until the 20th century.

“The Sheehan Gallery exhibit will present the work of the current generation of woodblock print artists who were influenced both by traditional woodblock prints and by pioneer American woodblock print artists who learned and collaborated with woodblock print artists from Japan,” said Takemoto. “The exhibit will show how these artists have not only retained a significant link with the past, but how they have recreated and re-imagined the woodblock print process as a vital medium for expressing their thoughts and ideas.”

The exhibit is one of the more ambitious projects that the Sheehan Gallery has taken on, as evidenced by the two-year-long development period. Unlike typical exhibits, such as the Frank Munns retrospective exhibit of last semester, this exhibition features many different artists of a similar style rather than just one.

“We have 17 contemporary abstract artists [who] utilize a traditional Japanese wood block technique as a component for making their images,” said Forbes. “It’s really quite an astounding roster.”

The project first started when Takemoto and Professor of Art Keiko Hara worked on past Whitman exhibits and began to collaborate with contemporary Japanese artists like Ida Shoichi and Tadashi Toda.

“In 2006 … we led a Freeman-Grant-sponsored student trip called ‘Making Paper, Making Books: Exploring the World of Water Ink and Paper in Japan,'” said Takemoto. “During the trip we met a number of American artists who were experimenting with woodblock print techniques and transferring  images onto Japanese handmade paper.”

The Mokuhanga exhibit went through a number of stages in the past two years. The original plan was to showcase entirely native Japanese artists, and there was talk of collaborating with larger organizations.

“We wanted to work with certain institutions, like the Library of Congress, and that sort of thing,” said Forbes. “Unfortunately, due to issues of resources, the gallery currently doesn’t meet the requirements to bring in work from certain places.”

Although they recently finished preparing one exhibit, the Sheehan Gallery looks forward to the future.

“We have the main Mokuhanga exhibition, and in the smaller spaces, we have three smaller exhibitions going on,” said Forbes. “It’s not uncommon for us to have five to eight exhibits at various stages … we can have as many as 12.”

But the goal with this exhibit, as well as with all other exhibits at the gallery, is to spread awareness about art, be it for a single artist or generations carrying on a style.

“Our aim is to show how traditional woodblock print techniques and methods have inspired modern American artists and to point  out how the Mokuhanga tradition can no longer be considered as belonging only to Japan,” said Takemoto. “The techniques have spread to America and Europe, leading to a new wave of international Mokuhanga awareness.”