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Eugene Weekly : Culture : 11.10.05

Visual Art:

Japanese Popular Culture

From the floating world to nonsense machines



East/West choreography at UO


Insane Plots

Tales from NaNoWriMo part II.


Lake O'Hara

Spend this winter planning a trip to the golden heart of the Rockies.


Banking on Beetles

What happened to my aphids?



Japanese Popular Culture

From the floating world to nonsense machines


Part One of Two

An exceptional combination of five remarkable exhibits at two different venues currently affords viewers a rare opportunity to explore the world of Japanese popular culture from the early 18th century to the current avant-garde. Viewers will also examine some of the ways in which Japanese and Western art forms have informed each other over the centuries.

The two complementary venues are the UO Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art and the White Lotus gallery. Besides its Japanese room dedicated to the museum's own collection of Japanese artifacts, the JSMA currently showcases four different exhibits focusing on Japan.

During the Edo period in Japan (1603-1867), under the military rule of the Tokugawa shogunate, the new capital Edo (now Tokyo) grew from a fishermen's village into a city of more than a million inhabitants. Urbanization fostered the development of a money economy with flourishing trade and banking, the rise of the merchant class and the emergence of a new distinct urban culture (chônindô, "the way of townspeople").

Eizan of the Takeya, by Chôkôsai Eishô c. 1790s, on loan from the Weatherspoon Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, gift of Dr. Lenoir C. Wright, 1967.

For the first time, townspeople (chônin) had enough leisure to enjoy a booming world of entertainment that included kabuki and puppet theaters, teahouses, festivals and the brothel district, all of which attracted customers from all walks of life. This ephemeral world of pleasure and escapism became known in the 17th century as ukiyo, the floating world. The term ukiyo also connoted the Buddhist concept of illusory reality.

The mass culture that accompanied the rise of the lower social classes found its expression in a new commercial artform, the woodblock print. Although the term ukiyo-e ("picture of the floating world") also included paintings, woodblock prints were the cheapest, most popular and most versatile medium. Paintings were for the elite classes, prints for everyone else. Ranging from cheap black-and-white images to luxurious designs, they were suitable for mass production.

"Inside the Floating World: Japanese Prints from the Lenoir C. Wright Collection" (JSMA), is a traveling exhibition organized by the Weatherspoon Art Museum (North Carolina) and curated by Allen Hockley, art historian at Dartmouth College. Its 100 thematically grouped prints by prominent artists span the entire history of the ukiyo-e, providing a superb overview of the tradition.

Exhibit designer Kurt Neugebauer masterfully set the stage with a wide Prussian blue frieze that visually lowers the ceiling and ensures that the small white-matted prints are not lost against a huge white wall. A traditional orange carp-streamer (loaned by Dr. Lee Michels) floats delightfully against this luminous blue echoed in many of the prints. At regular intervals, the tall verticals of hashira-e (pillar prints) posters break the horizontal space and impart rhythm to the installation.

The earliest prints displaying ukiyo-e topics date from the early 17th century. These black-and-white prints (sumizuri-e) were often hand-colored. The simplicity of their design and their flowing lines recall those of paintings. Masanobu's depiction of a man dreaming of a "poison prostitute spider" is a wonderful example of this early style.

In the 1740s, printing was done in two colors (benuziri-e). Full-color prints, nishiki-e ("brocade prints"), took over in 1765. The number of color blocks depended on the intended market: while inexpensive editions and book illustrations used three to five colors, luxury prints could require up to 30 blocks.

Print production involved a threefold division of labor. The Ukiyo-e artist designed a preparatory brush drawing (shita-e) that was then traced on very thin paper. The master-carver pasted this hanshita-e (block design) faced down onto a cherry-wood block and carved through the paper, leaving the design outlines in high relief to create a key-block. Assistants carved separate blocks for each color. Guide marks (kento) were carved on each block to ensure the drawing and colors would register correctly on each print. Samples of key- and color-blocks are displayed together with a set of traditional tools.

Printers used paper handmade from kôzo (mulberry) and, originally, traditional translucent vegetal and inorganic pigments with uneven lightfastness. By the mid-1860s, aniline dyes (synthesized in England in the 1850s) became widely used. Their intensity was viewed by many critics and collectors as a symptom of garish decadence, but they were popular and many considered them a sign of modernization and progress. The better printmakers knew to use them cautiously and to good effect.

Subject-matter in ukiyo-e reflected the interests of the Edo population of the time and provided a wide-range depiction of the contemporary urban world of the merchant and craft classes. Most themes are represented here – to the exclusion of the highly popular erotic shunga prints ("images of spring").

Ukiyo-e chronicled every aspect of the highly-ritualized Kabuki world, from dressing-rooms and backstage areas to actors on stage in stylized poses and theatrical expressions. Kunisada's triptych, Interior of the Morita-za Kabuik Theater, details not only the setting but the socially diverse audience while actors on stage play the third act of Shibaraku, a traditional season-opener.

Climactic moments were abundantly illustrated in colorful, dramatic compositions and stylized designs. A popular play such as Chûshingura (A Treasury of Loyal Retainers) prompted series of eleven prints (one per act). By the 1770s, settings became more detailed and bust-portraits (ôkubi-e) offered close-up views of leading actors, highlighting their unique features.

The other dominant genre was the bijinga, pictures of beautiful women from all walks of life – though most were courtesans, who were considered models of refinement and elegance. Ukiyo-e artists kept up with, and documented, the rapidly changing fashions in clothing, hairstyles and ornaments, as well as the ever-evolving conception of ideal beauty. Thus the sturdy capable woman of the early 17th century turns in the 1760s into a slender delicate adolescent baring her nape enticingly before maturing in the 19th century into a lofty beauty in increasingly complex and monumental hairstyles.

The women depicted were idealized types, not individuals. Garments, hairstyles and held objects indicated class and occupation. Courtesans were identified by their name and that of the brothel they belonged to, not by any personal features. Vertical diptychs (kakemono-e) provided affordable alternatives to the paintings of courtesans commissioned by wealthy patrons. The bijinga also extended its owner vicarious enjoyment of the floating world.

Japan possessed the highest literacy rate in the pre-modern world, and classical literature and poetry also supplied the ukiyo-e artist with themes and characters. The latter included the poets themselves, such as Ono no Komachi (depicted by Eishi in the manner of the Heian period in which she lived) and Fujiwara no Yasumasa (expressively portrayed by Yoshitoshi in a triptych as magical as the poet's music in the rhythm of its lines and the precise economy of its composition).

Heroines and heroes out of century-old legends and tales, warriors out of medieval epics and war chronicles (gunki), all come to life in dramatic narrative scenes, each detail scrupulously faithful to its description in written sources.

Many ukiyo-e include poems: classical and contemporary, playful verses and memorial poems on shini-e (death prints), verses by actors and poems by courtesans.

One Hundred Aspects of the Moon #88: A Summer Evening, woodblock print by Yoshitoshi

For the culturally literate, one genre provided an intellectual form of entertainment: the mitate-e, variously translated as "parody prints" or "look and compare pictures." As applied to poetry, mitate referred to figurative language. Ukiyo-e artists transferred these poetic techniques to their visual medium by incorporating multiple layers of cultural references (allusions to classical poetry, visual borrowings from other artists, transpositions of historical scenes to the present and vice-versa) to their designs to create simultaneous levels of meaning. Within the same print, playful or ironic connections were established between past and present, classical art and popular culture, the refined and the vulgar.

Toyohiro's mitate-e, Contemporary Beauty with Heian-period Courtier, juxtaposes protagonists from different eras within a landscape which is the subject of the poem inscribed on the print, itself written by the male character, the poet Fujiwara no Teika, and an inspiration for previous mitate-e, which are here visually referred to.

Travel and sightseeing in the guise of pilgrimage became increasingly popular in the late 1700s. Publishers produced illustrated travel-guides and tourist maps. Hokusai's 1806 series, Fifty-Three Stations of the Tôkaidô established a precedent with its inclusion of travelers and human activities. Hiroshige's 1930s series on the same theme entrenched him a one of the giants of the landscape genre.

Surimono were prints privately commissioned for special occasions (musical performances, poetry gatherings). Their motifs are numerous and even include still lifes. What they share are high-quality paper, expensive pigments and the use of special techniques such as the sprinkling of metal powders (brass, copper) and minerals (mica), gauffrage and embossing (achieved with a dry printing block).

What all these prints have in common, beside their obvious historical interest, is an exquisite sense of pattern and structure. Hockley's full-color catalogue accompanying the show provides indispensable explanations of the prints' content and socio-political and cultural context. Regrettably, it omits any discussion of their stylistic and aesthetic features.       


Inside the Floating World:

Japanese Prints from the Lenoir C. Wright Collection, Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon (October 8, 2005-January 8, 2006)

Ukiyo-e Outside In:

Western Impressions of the Floating World, Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon (October 8, 2005-January 8, 2006)



Saturday, Nov. 12, 2:00 pm, JSMA: Inside the Floating World, lecture by curator Allen Hockley.

Wednesday, Nov. 16, 5:30-8:00 pm, JSMA: Maywa Denki, artist talk and reception.

Friday, Nov. 18, 7:30, The Shedd: Maywa Denki live

Nov. 12 & 19, Dec. 16 & 17, 8:00, DIVA: Japanpalooza Festival of Japanese Films (After Life, Nobody Knows, Princess Mononoke, Tampopo)




East/West choreography at UO


A bi-coastal offering jumps on the boards when the UO Dance Department presents new and recent works by New York-based choreographer Gabriel Masson and Portland dance artist Linda K. Johnson on Nov. 11 and 12.

Masson's career as a dancer and choreographer spans 20 years, after he wandered into a modern dance class in Mississippi and found his calling. "I was home," he says.

Gabe Masson

Masson has toured with Dance Olympians Lucinda Childs and Doug Varone. At the UO concert, he presents "A Story About Apples," his latest exploration of the multimedia format he's investigated in recent years. This premiere performance features Masson with UO alumna Sarah Ebert, whose move to Portland has left a void on Eugene stages. Her lyrical but grounded style can't be beat. Catch her in Masson's solo, "Inevitable," set to a Philip Glass violin concerto. Masson, whose élan as a performer is matched by his inquisitive nature as an artist, will also offer a new solo, "The Day Before Yesterday," to a score by Guy Klucevsek.

Johnson will premiere "What Remains … Requiem," a solo developed while in residency at the Caldera artist's retreat program in Blue Lake, Ore. Johnson, who calls herself a "dance-based artist" has created place-based performance in the Northwest for 13 years. She received national attention and praise for her site-specific reclamation of a scrubby traffic circle in Portland that she adopted for a year to nurture as a garden. The culminating action-art drew attention to how much of our suburban and urban landscape stands fallow and unappreciated, while sprawl sprawls. If you bemoan the seeming disconnects between art and politics, you'll find Johnson's work savvy and refreshing.

Dougherty Dance Theatre on the third floor of the Gerlinger Annex opens at 7:30 pm for the 8 pm show on Friday and Saturday. Tickets are available at the door; $10 general admission, $5 students and seniors. Limited seating.



Insane Plots

Tales from NaNoWriMo part II.


A woman in a blue knitted cap and scarf perched on her chair. On the table lay a bulging file folder, brimming with sheaves of handwritten and typed paper. "All of these" — she held up her folder — "are my notes for this novel." But, "my heroine hasn't left home yet," she said. Blue Cap is more than 11,000 words into National Novel Writing Month's 50,000-word goal, and her character must leave the village soon. Her notes had been sitting around for months, she said, but since beginning writing Nov. 1, the plot had become clearer. "I didn't plan that, but it's working," she said, delighted.

Another participant noted, "We are wired to do art, and there are so few opportunities." With NaNoWriMo, "we have a reason and other people to be accountable to." In the process of moving from Tigard, this writer hasn't met her word count goal. "It's not the end of the world if you don't make it," she noted.

The group is determined to "make it" — in NaNoWriMo parlance, to "win." By next Sunday, when we meet again (from noon to 2 pm at Triomphe), each WriMo should have another 11,670 words on paper.

A young woman said, "I have seven subplots, but no plot."

We told her we will start a "What if?" thread in our online community at www.nanowrimo.org. For instance, someone said, "What if your character got into a car crash?"

After six days, the international word count teeters toward 150 million, from about 60,000 participants. The Eugene metro area now has about 146 participants. Registration is open until Nov. 25, at which point someone would have to write 10,000 words a day to win. But people do it.

Seven Subplots glanced around the coffee shop and said, "There are a lot of insane people out there."

Look for weekly updates on this project through November.



Lake O'Hara

Spend this winter planning a trip to the golden heart of the Rockies.


It would be impossible to experience all the natural wonders of western North America in a human lifetime, and maybe even harder to pick the most scenic spot on the left side of the continent (is there another side?).

A backpacking trip to the bottom of the Grand Canyon will take you through a dozen different climate and vegetation zones, each one more spectacular than the next. You haven't lived until you've seen the spring wildflower blooms transform the somber floor of Death Valley, or seen the northern lights dancing over a vast plain of fiery-red tundra at Gates of the Arctic National Park in Alaska.

But if I had to pick one place for plain old jaw-dropping scenery, it would have to be Lake O'Hara, a cobalt-blue tarn lying at the feet of 10,000 foot vertical peaks in Canada's Yoho National Park, deep in the heart of the northern Rockies.

Fall is the time to make the pilgrimage to this Mecca of alpine scenery, when glistening snow-capped peaks are framed by the fluorescent golden glow of the larch forest.

The larch is the most contrary of the class Coniferae. Unlike its cousins, who remain boring green pyramids year round, the larch changes from iridescent lime to a shimmering yellow-gold before losing its leaves during the long winter months. This color change is among the most spectacular in nature, and Lake O'Hara is hands-down the best larch turn in the world.

No one who makes the long trip to O'Hara will be disappointed, but it is a LONG drive from Eugene — just about 15 hours. To get there, drive I-5 north into Canada, and pick up the Trans-Canada Highway (Canada Hwy. 1) heading east.

A bus takes visitors to Lake O'Hara from a parking lot found on Hwy. 1 about 15 kilometers east of the small town of Field. (Every other house in Field is a charming bed and breakfast with rooms for around $100 a night Canadian.) Access to a campground at the lake is restricted and you will need to make reservations for the bus ($15) and for a camping spot ($9 a night) by calling (250) 343-6433. The campground has several warming huts and the Lake O'Hara Trails Club operates Le Relais Day Shelter, where you can warm up and buy a hot drink or snack.

The bus to the campground typically runs from the middle of June to the first week of October, and the larch is usually at its peak towards the end of September.

If you can only spend one day at O'Hara, make it count by hiking the Alpine Circuit, one of the most famous day hikes in the world. Walk up the road towards the lake from the campground. Head clockwise around the lakeshore. Just under a half a kilometer from a small bridge over the lake's outlet, turn uphill (left) onto the Wiwaxy Gap trail.

This trail is steep, climbing more than 500 meters in less than a kilometer and a half. The good news is that the trail remains relatively level as you wind your away around the rim of a spectacular alpine basin.

From 2,500 meter Wiwaxy Gap, descend southeast across ledges and talus slops for 1.7 kilometers to emerald-green Lake Oesa, a miniature Lake O'Hara resting in the shadow of enormous snow-capped peaks.

From Oesa, pick up the 2.2 km Yukness Ledge Alpine Route. As the name suggests, you will pick your way across a rough boulder-strewn ledge beneath Mt. Yukness. You can fall a long ways from here, but a greater danger is cardiac arrest from the spectacular views of Lake O'Hara and the jagged peaks to the west.

After the long ledge traverse you drop to Opabin Basin, a maze of trails that weaves through stunning larch forest and myriad small pools and streams. It is common to come within spitting distance of mountain goats on this section of the trail.

After exploring Opabin for a few hours, pick up the 1.9-kilometer All Souls Route heading west. There's a steady climb past the Hanging Garden of Babylon (return in the spring for the flowers) to another fantastic overlook at the foot of Mount Schäffer. From here you descend sharply and take a right turn onto the Big Larches trail, which contains some of the most magnificent larch forest in the valley. The Big Larches Trail drops back down to the lake, completing the circuit.

But hopefully not the end of your adventures in the golden heart of the Rockies.



Banking on Beetles

What happened to my aphids?


If your garden existed in a state of balance — perhaps grace would be a better term — you would be able to ignore insects almost completely and get on with the real purpose of your life, which is to weed. — ERIC GRISSELL

The first few years after we converted a patch of grass into a garden, aphids were a conspicuous spring feature, especially on rose shoots. I rubbed them off with my fingers, blasted them with water and occasionally resorted to insecticidal soap, but they still hung around until the rains stopped in June or July. Weevils used to be a problem, too. Now insect pests rarely attract my notice, and even slugs are scarcely an issue. What has changed in our yard that might account for this? I suspect that, mostly inadvertently, we have provided a mixed environment that's increasingly friendly to insects.

If this sounds like a paradox, read on. In his book Insects and Gardens: In Pursuit of a Garden Ecology, Eric Grissell pointed out that an overwhelming majority of insects are not harmful in the garden. They are, on the contrary, either beneficial or (from a gardener's point of view) neutral. Beneficials include pollinators and miniature garbage disposal units, but they also include a vast array of insects that prey on other insects. Lady beetles and their larvae feed mainly on aphids, but some eat mites, scale insects and even mildew. Ground beetles prey on slugs, snails, mites and insects that can be harmful to garden flowers and vegetables. Hoverfly and lacewing larvae eat aphids voraciously. Parasitic wasps knock out not only aphids but cabbage loopers and cutworms, too.

Grissell proposed that insects become pests only when insect life is out of balance. The more diverse and biologically friendly the environment, the more insects there will be and the more likely they will live in equilibrium with one another and other elements in the environment. Things that throw insect populations out of balance include the use of chemicals and the existence of plant monocultures. Our yard is mostly filled with big, closely planted beds of shrubs and flowering perennials. Since our two small areas of grass were invaded by prunella, clover and other things, we have no monocultures, and on the rare occasions we use pesticides we use only non-persistent remedies like soap, sulfur and bicarbonate of soda. We also keep outdoor lights to a minimum, and don't use bug zappers (95 percent of the insects they kill are not mosquitoes, apparently).

Actively promoting diversity is particularly valuable to vegetable gardeners, who must inevitably plant some monocultures. Organic farmers use flowering insectary rows and weed patches to attract beneficial insects such as hoverflies and parasitic wasps. In Britain, to counter the disappearance of the hedgerows that once formed a reservoir of biological variety, farmers and conservationists invented the "beetle bank," a raised area of tussocky perennial grasses and weeds that provides habitat for predatory ground beetles and other insects as well as spiders, small mammals and ground-nesting birds which, of course, also eat insects. Conservation strips, a combination of these two ideas, are now being studied in several places in North America.

We can easily adapt these methods for our gardens. What's the best "beetle bank" for a little yard? Beetles and spiders need a dry, airy environment with lots of decaying vegetable matter, so the cooler parts of a compost heap can be perfect. Within the garden, you could make room for an old half-wine barrel filled with potting soil and planted with hummocky grass — orchard grass and timothy are classic, but a clumping native or ornamental grass would do fine — perhaps our native tufted hairgrass, Deschampsia cespitosa. Loose mulches and dead perennial tops also provide a winter home for beetles and other insects. Like many gardeners, I now cut back perennials in spring instead of fall. We enjoy late flowers and fall color; the bugs enjoy the mess.

Large areas of lawn are easily modified by leaving certain areas unmowed. In a small garden, one or two corners could be left uncut and enriched with flowers that encourage beneficial insects. Members of the daisy, mustard, mint and carrot families are widely cited. Carol Savonen, a science communications specialist at OSU, recommends "a mix of yarrow, wild buckwheat, white sweet clover, tansy, sweet fennel, sweet alyssum, spearmint, Queen Anne's lace, hairy vetch, flowering buckwheat, crimson clover, cowpeas, common knotweed, caraway and black locust." Lucky me, two of my neighbors have black locust trees.

Rachel Foster of Eugene is a garden consultant and author of All About Gardens, a selection of past EW columns. She can be reached at rfoster@efn.org