Retrospective Exhibition to February 25, 2024
Bainbridge Island Museum of Art, 550 Winslow Way E. 206.451.4000, Hours: 10am-5pm daily.
Dazzling color paired with emotional depth and brilliant handling of the watercolor medium strike us right away in Linda Okazaki’s paintings in her retrospective exhibition at the Bainbridge Museum of Art. Okazaki has lived in Port Townsend for decades, and before that she lived in Eastern Washington, attending Washington State University for two degrees and then joining the faculty there in the 1970s. She was part of an informal group of faculty and graduate students, a relaxed connection because of the isolation of Pullman. I can remember when I was on the faculty there in the late 1980s (long after Linda Okazaki had left) the rural setting affected the artists in unusual ways. We had parties to look at the stars, bonfires for the fourth of July, and still plenty of time to work. The artists often engaged with the unique landscape, its stillness, its creatures, its odd palimpsests of earlier times (such as a disused railroad track).
Gaylen Hanson, by my time retired and painting full time in the tiny town of Palouse, was one of Okazaki’s professors. Near the beginning of the exhibition is a “studio conversation” of Gaylen and Vincent Van Gogh. We see Hanson’s presence in her art in the benevolent animals and birds that fill her paintings. But her birds multiply and congregate and disperse as in the wonderful recent painting, Birds Take Flight into Twilight, 2023. We see twenty different species of birds, each carefully observed, in a landscape filled with a rainbow of colors.
Another inspiration was the Bay Area artist Joan Brown, who also pursued a personal vocabulary of self-portraits, dancing, and swimming, in a fantasy world. Also important to her was the anguished imagery of Frida Kahlo, as we see in Letter to Frida, 1985.
The exhibition has numerous themes, but they are not clustered together; Curator Greg Robinson, in collaboration with the artist, conducts a symphony of phrases that build on one another, and repeat, each with a new variation. The themes given are “Personal Narrative, Domesticity and Nature Morte, Dream Logic, The Mother Wound, Landscape and Waterscape, Music, Song, and Theater, The Briarcliff series, and Birds.
My own response is that water is the dominant subject that encompasses all the others. First, there is the transparency of watercolor which conveys many moods. At the outset of the exhibition, we see Evening Departure, 1980. The sea (Puget Sound) swirls around the boat, as the artist, accompanied by her dog, is held in the arms of a large wolf. The embrace is tender, but the image suggests anxiety. This represents on one level her departure from many years in Eastern Washington to live in Port Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula.
But on another level, we can sense her fear of starting over in an entirely new environment through the imaginary, but gentle embrace of a wolf.
In River Story Return, 1989, the artist now depicts herself nude in the water, carrying a raven and reaching for the shore as a glass vessel floats toward her and a person in a red and black striped robe fails to connect to her. Desperation is palpable, expressed through the color, textures, and images. Crypt Swimmers heightens the sense of danger as several figures swim among heavy columns and arches.
When Okazaki was six, her mother was murdered by a stalker who then committed suicide. For the first time, the artist is showing several works that refer to this trauma, each more explicit than the last. The earliest is a pencil drawing made while in art school, but later large watercolors confront this painful subject with a courageous directness.
Not surprisingly then, the overall sensation of the exhibition is one of unease, everything is off kilter, filled with undecipherable metaphors, particularly in the still life paintings of tables set vertically against the picture plane and filled with odd objects. Much of the imagery is from dreams, dreams that suggest struggles to just find a firm footing particularly in juxtaposition with water. It is timely that the exhibition “Hokusai Inspiration and Influence” is at the Seattle Art Museum: Hokusai was a master of painting water. The artist clearly has an affinity with him.
But I will end where I began with the dazzling color: Okazaki immersed herself in a study of Goethe’s color theory and then made her own color charts in order to exactly convey the emotions that she wanted to express. So seeing these paintings through color first gives us a feeling of comfort and sometimes joy, even as the paintings themselves take us on a fantastic adventure.
~Susan Platt, PhD