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Road pictures.

Byline: Bob Keefer The Register-Guard

The late Jun'ichiro Sekino, one of the best-known Japanese printmakers of the 20th century, enjoyed a special connection to Eugene's art community.

During the 1960s, at the height of his career in Japan, he came to the Northwest to teach woodblock printing techniques. He served on the faculties at the University of Washington and at Oregon State University, where artist and print collector Gordon Gilkey was then a dean.

While Sekino was teaching in Corvallis, Gilkey called Yoko McClain, a Japanese-born art collector who worked at the University of Oregon, to see whether she might assemble enough people for the artist to teach a printmaking class here.

McClain quickly signed up 15 students at the university and volunteered as interpreter for Sekino, who didn't speak English. In the process, she and the artist became friends - and she and her husband, Robert McClain, began collecting prints from what would become the masterwork of Sekino's career, "Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido," a series of 55 prints the artist had just begun in a project that would stretch over 15 years.

That complicated prologue helps explain why White Lotus, the Eugene art gallery that specializes in Asian art, has mounted a show of prints by Sekino, who is not exactly a household name in most American households.

The McClains eventually collected all 55 of the "Tokaido" prints. The series depicts the beginning, the end and the 53 way stations along the Tokaido - a 300-mile seaside road connecting the Japanese capital of Edo, now Tokyo, to Kyoto. For centuries, it has provided a subject for Japanese artists, and in the 19th century ukiyo-e artist Ando Hiroshige made his own series of prints of the same locations.

In 2009, the McClains' collection of Sekino prints was exhibited at the UO's Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art alongside a set of Hiroshige's Tokaido prints that had been collected by Gertrude Bass Warner, whose collection of Asian art formed the basis of the museum's initial collection.

The White Lotus Gallery exhibition is, naturally, not quite this ambitious, although it provides more context.

Consisting of work acquired by gallery owner Hue-Ping Lin during her travels in Japan, it contains several of Sekino's Tokaido prints as well as work from other stages of the artist's career.

Abstract familiarity

Let's look at the Tokaido work first. The most subtly exquisite one is titled "Hara."

Sekino's career, which spanned much of the 20th century, infused a traditional form - Japanese woodblock printmaking - with the modernist energy then sweeping Europe and America.

"Hara" is the perfect example of that cross-pollination.

The piece shows a nearly monochromatic tile roof where the abstract pattern is interrupted simply by the upside-down reflection of the snowy summit of Mount Fuji. "Hara" is an exercise in abstract design on a familiar visual theme.

McClain, who died in 2011, once told me a story about the artist's deep interest in depicting roofs.

"He did a lot of roofs," she said. "One time he did a roof, and a Japanese geisha told him, 'Oh that's such a nice print.'

"So when this beautiful geisha told him she liked it, he decided to do lots of roofs."

Another example from the series is "Yui."

The print has us looking through a window at a flat expanse of cerulean sky. A wrought iron balcony rail in the foreground is framed by sheer white curtains on each side.

Like much of Sekino's work, it has a classical beauty and sense of quiet about it.

The second series

The White Lotus exhibit also contains a number of pieces from a later but similar landscape series by Sekino, "Oku-no- hosomichi."

The artist did about 60 prints with this title, which refers to a route traveled and written about by the classical poet Matsuo Basho.

More interesting, at least for contrast, are his portraits, of which a few are in the show.

The most gripping, in perhaps a creepy way, is "Monjuru and Jihe," a complex and angular composition of two master puppeteers and their three white-faced puppets.

The two human faces, though larger, seem to recede behind those of the smaller puppets in an image that has the journalistic energy you might see in a photograph.

Sekino's work is warm, contemporary and sophisticated. His technique is dazzling.

Take some time this summer to drop by White Lotus and see it for yourself.

Call Bob Keefer at 541-338-2325 or you can e-mail him at bob.keefer@registerguard.com.

ART REVIEW

Woodblock Prints by Jun'ichiro Sekino (1914-1988)

What: Landscapes and other images by Sekino

Where: White Lotus Gallery, 767 Willamette St.

When: Through July 20

Hours: From 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday
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Title Annotation:Visual Arts
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jun 13, 2013
Words:785
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