The Wordless Poetry of Color

POEMS are not just the province of poets. They are often visual and wordless, not because the poet is silent or inept, but because the poet is an artist. The artist poet's work displaces words and seeks to transcribe experience through evocative visual symbols. Miyoko Ito's visual world is as circumscribed as the poet Emily Dickinson's personal world. Like Dickinson, however, Ito reached for infinite variety and implication within the narrow boundaries she set in her art. Her paintings are often modest and understated - depending upon delicate alterations between colors and forms rather then on assaultive or forced interchanges. Her work is quietly compelling, and deftly describes a poetic domain.

As symbolic representations of feeling, Ito's paintings are simultaneously evasive and concrete. On one level her paintings seem to be inexplicable notations from an impenetrable personal realm. On another level, they seem to be ordered and defined as comprehensible images inhabiting understandable structures. They linger in thought as suggestive and imaginative mindscapes. Each is a poetic fragment from an evolving visual journey.

In Chicago, Ito found a unique artistic environment that nurtured her particular visual journey. Though she was forced to leave California a month before her graduation from Berkeley during the government evacuation and internment of Japanese-Americans, Ito eventually found her way to the Art Institute School in Chicago. She arrived in Chicago in the mid-'40s and settled into an art atmosphere in which non-Western art, the irrational image, and the private inner voice were the prime influences on its prominent artists.

Like Paul Klee's, each of her paintings was an intuitive expression; the color established the emotional mood, and nature was the source of form. The inner content was lyrical and mysterious. Her abstractions, like his, dwelt in a realm of imaginary fantasy where the unique forms were shaped by an inner voice.

Ito's paintings, often on the brink of defining their evasive images, frequently appear to be blowups of sections of Japanese prints. The forms in her painting are faint echoes of their sources: a portion of an architectural structure (a window or a room), known objects (perhaps a table), a cityscape (roads and buildings), or a landscape (trees or hills). Arcs, lines, and planes swing between reality and abstraction.

A mute, delicate color usually characterized her most successful paintings, which put her work in sharp contrast to the more strident work going on in Chicago. Hushed greens, pale oranges, mellow ochers, silent ultramarines, are often left to their quietude or, at times, gently jarred by a crisp red or a declarative acid green. She was a sensitive colorist finding a broad array of subtle shades within each color - all carefully, sometimes precariously, balanced in each painting.

``Untitled'' showed how Ito defines untipped planes as simplified forms of muted color. At the same time, the central image appears to be a compact cubist table - we see the flattened side legs and a cut-out top on the same flat plane. Simultaneously, this complex form suggests a portion of a window framing the bluish hues of sky above and/or water beneath. In fact, depth is implied by using a series of frames, curving and rectilinear, until we focus on what appears to be a distant, floating flag shape. The space and the rhythm are felt rather than described dimensionally. In this way the painting wavers between what it is and might be.

The painting ``Garden'' seems reminiscent of a portion of a Japanese print. Here the compressed asymmetrical planes allude to an architectural setting. Diagonals suggest depth. Narrow bands may be strips of wood denoting fence, porch, and window. Are we in a room, or only viewing the wooden stretcher backs of the painter's canvases? Restrained colors shift subtly and are broken partially with richer hues in the top right corner. Perhaps we see a garden, or is it merely an abstract painting of a landscape with red mountains tucked in the corner?

Solids become transparent. We sense walls, floors, and landscapes that are merely planes of color which in turn are described by heavy layers of paint that feel light as air. An up-ended suspended rope fragment at the bottom of the painting forces the painting's ambiguity in yet another direction.

Contradiction and ambiguity, constants in a world where things are not always what they seem, are mirrored in Ito's visual poems. They were also a part of her personal journey - a five-year childhood return to Japan, where she felt unease, and a relocation to America, where her Japanese ancestry seemed to keep her an outcast. Her life, like her art, bridged two realms and hung precariously between them.

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