by Frank Lewis
Sure, it’s kind of an hour and a half drive from Cleveland to Canton, but if you can possibly make it down by April 26, it’s well worth it to catch the special exhibit currently at the Canton Art Museum, Kimono as Art: The Landscapes of Itchiku Kubota.
Pictures can’t do justice to the beauty and subtly of the effects that Japanese artist, who died in 2003 at the age of 85, captured in dye on fabric. The oversized silk kimonos aren’t actual wearable garments but merely backdrops for Kubota’s stunning, nature-based designs, backdrops that quietly evoke the culture and history from which they sprung.
Kubota spent most of his life trying to recapture the unique effect of a piece of 350-year-old dyed fabric he’d seen in a museum in Japan when he was 20. He never duplicated it but at the age of 60, he finally developed his own process, which he felt achieved the same effect. It involves tie-dying the fabric in tiny increments and incorporating the puckers created by tying the fabric into the design. He also added ink drawing, embroidery and gold leaf to designs that freeze the most evanescent moods of nature and qualities of water, sky and light. The result is works like “Lovebirds Playing by the Waterside,” with its golden birds frolicking on fields of lavender, aqua and green, with each new section picking up and reflecting the color of the previous section before moving on. With only dye and tiny fabric puckers, he creates water that seems to flow, swirl and shimmer on fabric. Two views of Mt. Fuji, “Fuji and Woodland” and “Fuji and Burning Clouds,” show the range of Kubota’s handling of colors. The former’s muted, semi-abstract color effects clearly echo the work of Monet, while the vivid golds, purples and blues of the latter suggest the work of such early 20th-century artists as Matisse or Klimt.
The first room of the show, with ten such masterpieces, orients viewers to Kubota’s artistry. But it’s the second room, with the 30 kimonos comprising Kubota’s Symphony of Light series, that delivers the knockout punch. Not only do these works capture the changing lighting and atmospheric effects of the onset of autumn slowly becoming the depth of winter, but their designs flow from garment to garment, making the creative process almost unfathomably complex. Trees turn gold, shed their leaves and are obscured in sudden squalls of snow, while the reflected light on clouds and mountain lakes undergoes continual metamorphosis. Each work needs to be examined in closely to catch details such as the multidirectional and variously sized puckers that create the pine forests at the base of mountains or the effects of a snowstorm. But the viewer should also take time to stand at the center of the horseshoe-shaped display to observe how the 30 works progress with the cycle of seasons from the delicate lavenders and explosive golds of “Combustion, Incandescence: The Light on the Lakes” to the finale of “Silver Purity: The Gentle Beauty of Floating Snow” with the vague pale gray forms of birds virtually hidden behind the dense white-on-white pileup of the snowstorm. Kubota had hoped to live to be 100 to complete the cycle with spring and summer; sadly for all of us, he didn’t make it.
The museum has gone all out for this show whose only other U.S. stop was a stay in San Diego earlier this year; Kubota’s work hasn’t been seen in this country since a show at the Smithsonian in 1995. The indoor courtyard of the Cultural Center for the Arts, which the museum shares with the Canton Symphony, Canton Ballet, the voices of Canton Opera and Players Guild Theatre, has been turned into a tribute to Japanese culture — with display cases of art objects, films and on weekends, demonstrations of crafts, kimono-wearing and tea ceremonies. A half-hour video presentation, shown in two locations in the museum, provides visitors with background information on Kubota’s life and work. A display of ceramics by Hawaiian-born Toshiko Takaezo sets the mood in the galleries leading to the main event and gives those waiting in line to see the Kubota show something to look at. And the lines can be long; on a recent Sunday, by 2 p.m., it wended its way out into the courtyard. Admission is $10, or $7 for students, seniors and those 13-18. You can pre-buy your tickets online, probably a good idea if you’re ho[ping to catch the show in its final days. — Anastasia Pantsios