We’re told that the vast majority of Americans believe that spirits accompany us in our daily life. Perhaps they are imagining the sorts of episodes portrayed by Seattle artist Irene Kubota, cheerful and brightly colored accounts of encounters between the supernatural and the ordinary, where conventional rules don’t apply, and deeper meaning is left up to the viewer.
Kubota’s show of large, decorative paintings at the Bryan Ohno Gallery, “Finding Our Way,” comes by way of an introduction, representing her first local exhibition since her move back to town, following decades of living and working in New York, where most of the paintings were created. If there’s a familiar look to her work, it’s because she joins a strong contingent of Seattle artists creating similarly engaging, folk-art influenced personal narratives, a style popular enough to have spawned at least one gallery (Grover Thurston) where it formed a specialty.
Like longtime Grover Thurston stalwarts Fay Jones and Joe Max Emminger, Kubota channels her narrative impulse through the lens of early 20th-century modernism (Chagall, Matisse) as well as naive art and book illustration. Her least successful paintings are those that are the most reminiscent of children’s books (cute elephants that seem to have wandered off the pages of Babar); her most successful works make a case for her uninhibited sense of design and color, and a free-roaming imagination — anything goes.
Viewers are left to fend for themselves, for example, in interpreting the madcap — and enormous, at almost 8 feet across — painting entitled “The Lemon Man.” Salvador Dalí would have been fine with the cast of oddball characters, like the snail with a man’s head being pushed by a smiling matron in a floral dress, his hollowed-out shell full of lemons on their way to a half-full bin. A few small onlookers populate a large expanse of otherwise empty canvas, including a red-faced aboriginal with tiny legs and an enormous head, and a Cyclops sheep. A see-thorough airplane and buildings drawn in childish black outline suffice for setting. Enjoying work this personal (i.e. cryptic) depends on your pleasure in its visual presence, and an intuitive sense of the picture’s inner logic; for me, Kubota scores on both counts.
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The ghosts that keep turning up in the exhibit are expressions of memory, or desire. A nude woman reaches out to a rainbow-colored male spirit who has just walked past, not noticing that his colorless twin is approaching her from the other side. Why is one ghost a riot of primary colors, the other pale? Elsewhere a nude woman sits expectantly at a richly set table with fruit and flowers, while a specter with wings and giant rabbit ears strolls up, mouth open as though in greeting. Kubota skillfully employs an intense, limited palette — cherry red, black, beige and a tiny spot of yellow — along with a bold sense of design, particularly evident in the black-and-white floral tablecloth and the lively black-and-white wallpaper.
Bold black-and-white patterning also features in my favorite work in the show, “Lady on the Green Pillow,” where we look down on a reclining, well-dressed woman in a lushly tiled room, while her daughter removes a mask to better see a kneeling ghost her mother does not. The mood is one of acceptance of everyday strangeness, a consistent theme in this intriguing and appealing exhibit.
Gary Faigin is an artist, author, critic and co-founder/artistic director of the Gage Academy of Art.