Survey Reveals the Depths of Ikemoto’s Painting

By Erin Goodwin-Guerrero

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Howard Ikemoto’s large abstraction, Shozuku, 1995, Enamel on paper

If you saw the 2007 exhibition of Howard Ikemoto’s small landscape watercolors at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, perhaps you wondered if Ikemoto, an artist/professor with a long history of influence in the South Bay area, still painted on canvas. The current Triton Museum’s survey exhibition of his painting from watercolor through abstraction and symbolic landscapes on canvas answers that question and shows a fascinating continuum between the abstract and the representational.

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Ikemoto’s Empty Boat at Midnight, 2008, Acrylic on Canvas


Large works with deft brush strokes and energetic canvases in restrained colors (there is a lot of black) are the dominant component of this show. But entering through the Atrium, the first works encountered are some of his light and glowing watercolors, green and alive. These small landscapes are an important introduction and clue to viewing the works on canvas in the main gallery exhibition. The lines, movements and summary references to shapes and essences in nature, done with loose gestures and linear notations suggest an inspiration and symbolism within nature that fascinate the artist and bring him back to certain places and formal situations repeatedly.

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Reservoirs, 2009, Acrylic on Canvas

Inside the larger gallery are two works that struck me for their role in exposing both the process of abstracting from nature and the artist’s attraction to water. They are loose interpretations of a view from above of a small reservoir or pool of water trapped in a quarry. Seen in the context of the darker, earthier abstract paintings, their colors stand out as brighter and as employing more major formal shapes within the rectangle, even if one does not immediately recognize the forms depicted. A second later one recognizes typical golden California Hillsides surrounding these small bodies of water. The curator’s statement in the exhibition puts a good deal of emphasis on the personal journey of this California artist. From Wallace Stegner to contemporary agricultural politics the role of water in the Far West is one of survival dramas. And so Howard Ikemoto, interned as a child in the dry dusty Central Valley at Tule Lake, in one of WWII’s concentration camps of Japanese Americans and immigrants, must have experienced a version of that drama.

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Meditation, 2009, Acrylic on Canvas

The boat that emerges in the most literal of Ikemoto’s work, appears to reference that journey from dark unspeakable places that may be repressed in childhood. Indeed many painters of Ikemoto’s generation withdrew into existential reaffirmation and embraced a freedom and urgency inherent in abstract expression after the psychological wounds of WWII. Yet, in time the artist’s palette has changed somewhat, more light seems to infuse the dark waters, accompanied by a calm surface, reflections and meditative symbols such as the lotus. The boats that float so serenely in these paintings of recent years are empty. The humans by and for which they are made may have come and gone leaving us to celebrate the journey itself. After Ikemoto’s two years living in Japan, reconnecting to roots in that culture, we can imagine the welcoming spiritual philosophy that has infused the artist’s overview of his life and life’s work as a painter.

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