Japanese Accents: This series of articles showcases Southern California artists whose works integrate elements of Japanese art and design, yet speak boldly about our contemporary SoCal lives. Some are Japanese American; others have no blood connection with Japan but have discovered something Japanese that resonates with their artistic vision.
In the late 1850s, Japanese artist Utagawa Hiroshige designed a series of woodblock prints depicting views of his native city Edo (modern Tokyo). His printed series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo was so popular that its publishers reprinted it many times. Over 150 years later, Los Angeles printmaker Barbara A. Thomason, inspired by Hiroshige's ambitious urban portrait, spent five years documenting her own city in a similar artistic project. Her series of paintings, One Hundred Not-So-Famous Views of Los Angeles steers clear of celebrated tourist spots, instead depicting the freeways, rivers, restaurants, street signs, buildings, neighborhoods and landscapes that are familiar and dear to the people who call L.A. home.
Thomason has lived and worked most of her life in Los Angeles. She received a Master's degree in Printmaking at California State University, Long Beach, and after graduation she joined Gemini G.E.L. (Graphic Editions Limited), an artists' workshop and publisher of limited-edition, hand-made prints on Melrose Avenue. For three years, Thomason worked as a master printer in lithography for such renowned artists as Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, Claus Oldenberg and Elsworth Kelly. Since then, she has widely exhibited her prints, paintings and sculptures in the Los Angeles area and has taught at several local colleges, including Cal Poly Pomona, where she currently teaches printmaking.
Over her 30 years as a working artist, her prints, paintings and public art pieces have portrayed aspects of urban life, while her sculptures have focused on more personal themes. In 2007, she needed a break from the personal in her art and was seeking inspiration. She found it at the Art Institute of Chicago, where she saw some prints from One Hundred Famous Views of Edo series by Japanese artist Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858), a series which depicts the city's famous bridges, streets, shrines, temples and picnic spots. These city views are masterpieces of Japanese graphic design. Vertical in format and measuring roughly 16" by 11", the prints are characterized by bold compositional elements - tree branches, bridge posts, kites or hawks - in the foreground, which frame and often contextualize the main scene. In one image, famously copied in oils by Vincent Van Gogh in the 1880s, a view of the Edo plum garden is framed through the gnarled branches of one of the old trees. Using a printing technique known as bokashi to create color gradation, Hiroshige was also able to represent the changing hues of a sunset or twilight sky, thus imbuing the views with a sense of time. In one of the best known views, Sudden Shower at Ohashi Bridge (1857), also copied by Van Gogh, Hiroshige added weather too, rendering a sudden downpour over an arching wooden bridge with sharp lines slashing diagonally across the image.
Thomason had first fallen in love with Japanese prints in her twenties, and had some prints of her own given to her by a Japanese boyfriend. After her Chicago visit, she decided to create a series of views of Los Angeles that would pay homage to Hiroshige's monumental artistic accomplishment while also allowing her to paint something beyond the personal. From the Japanese master, she borrowed the theme, the rough size and format - all 14"x 9" vertical - and the bokashi technique of color gradation. The rest is pure Los Angeles, starting with her choice of medium - cel vinyl, the material used to paint cels in the animation industry. "I love the look of cel vinyl," explains Thomason. "It allows me to build up layers of color to create depth in my paintings, and it resembles woodblock printing ink in texture and tone. It's also a local material, made near the MGM studios."
One of the first views she painted was a view of the Felix the Cat sign that sits atop the Felix Chevrolet dealership at Figueroa and Jefferson. Though the spot is by no means a tourist destination, it is probably recognizable to most Angelinos. It also symbolizes two important aspects of L.A. culture - cars and movies, something Thomason acknowledges in her iconic treatment of the building, looming above an empty street and below a vast evening sky. Another L.A. icon, Union Station, has been given a unique treatment as the only interior in the series. Here, bright morning light radiates through the ticket hall and lounge, illuminating the intricate ceilings and chairs of this beloved Art Deco transit terminal.
In many of her paintings, Thomason nods to Hiroshige by placing an animal or bird in the foreground. In a view of the Silver Lake Reservoir, the viewer peeks through a metal fence at a red dragonfly in the foreground and water and bushes in the distance. Though depicted through a man-made barrier, the scene is a softly rendered, tranquil view of nature.
In 2 Freeway South Toward LA, a spectacular red-tailed hawk soars over the freeway, dwarfing the Downtown skyline in the distance. Thomason has meticulously outlined each feather of the hawk, yet depicts the City as a ghostly silhouette with no details. The freeway itself is empty of cars, a rare and somewhat eerie sight. In Californian Coyotes, a group of brazen coyotes lurk like a gang of teenage boys on the grass along Riverside Drive in Los Feliz, where the two large signs from the former Californian Hotel near McArthur Park sit waiting to be re-installed some day.
In almost all the scenes, there are no people and no cars. In many of Thomason's images, only wild creatures inhabit the urban landscape, suggesting they are the only residents of the city. However, Thomason's intention is not to depict an abandoned city. She explains, "I chose not to paint people or cars because they can date a scene, like in the paintings of Edward Hopper." The result is a series of views suggesting movie sets waiting for a director to cue the actors to step in and animate them. In his idealized prints of Tokyo, Hiroshige sought to portray the character of his city. Thomason's series too, captures the beautiful, quirky, sometimes other-worldly character of this unique city.
One Hundred Not-So-Famous Views of Los Angeles - actually 107 paintings - can be seen on Barbara Thomason's website and will be on view at the Bridge Gallery at City Hall in Downtown Los Angeles from November 7th through December 2nd.