Eugenia Sumiye Okoshi Art: An American Abstract Master
Eugenia Sumiye Okoshi was born in Seattle, WA in 1921 during a family business trip to the U.S. She was raised and educated outside of Tokyo, Japan where she attended the prestigious Rikkyo Jogakuin, Futaba-kojo-Futaba-kai school. As a young woman Okoshi lived through the bombings and destruction of her home and way of life during WWII. She recalls, "Everything was destroyed, destroyed everywhere, people with nothing, nothing to eat, nowhere to live."
On a train from Tokyo to Nagasaki, Okoshi passed through Hiroshima after the bombing. The military police ordered her to shut the blinds but she peeked through. She saw that there was nothing. Faced with nothing herself, Okoshi decided to leave Japan. She fought authorities to recognize her as an American citizen by birth and came back to Seattle, WA where she began working, studying, and making art with Fay Chang and Nicholas Damascus at Seattle University and Henry Frye at the Modern Art Museum of Seattle. Okoshi also found inspiration in the work of Mark Toby, another popular Seattle-based artist who incorporated Japanese sumi painting, brush gesture and calligraphy into his Abstract Expressionist paintings.
Okoshi made her way to New York in 1956 where she worked as a beautician by day and spent her nights in her studio in the West Village. She studied with Jacob Lawrence at the New School Painting Workshop and sang in the choir at the Japanese American United Church on 143rd Street, where she met George Mukai. Mukai remembers Okoshi working furiously at her studio any time she could. He was also new to New York, an artist, and had his own war experience.
After the war Mukai attended the Gepson Art Okoshi embraced an Abstract aesthetic popular after the war. Asian and Asian American Abstract Expressionists are an often-overlooked part of this international artistic movement. Sunset of Ruin, (1960) Okoshi's favorite painting, is representative of her early work. Drenched in an impenetrable fog inhabited by ghostly scratches, it is at once terrifying and serene. A small patch of red punctuates caked and cracking rectangular forms obscured by wafting blurs of pink, brown, and grey.
In 1976 Okoshi married Mukai. By then she was exhibiting solo shows internationally and was a member of the Westbeth Artists Community in the West Village. Over the course of the 1960's Okoshi had developed a new style and technique that would come to define her work. Okoshi paints with oil on canvas and then places uniform ellipses of washi paper imported from Japan she has cut and colored into a grid on top of the paint. This meticulous and exacting process takes immense amounts of time. This technique is used in two numbered series of paintings entitled Persistent Lightand Plenum that Okoshi has been making for decades.
The "Persistent Light and Plenum" series evoke rain spattering on a window with an almost pixilated effect. Like in her earlier work recognizable forms appear to be just beyond sight. They emerge like the shadows of ruins through the smoke of a bombed out city. Yet they also evoke a calm bustle - an eerily mundane optimism. Light and color still find us through a settling screen of dust. This is not enduring light, able to withstand pressure, pain, or obscurity. Instead, Okoshi gives us persistent light: actively striving against obstacles in its way to make its message see Okoshi's ellipses break up their own repetitive grid. They stand as both layered individuals and a seamless flat whole. Plenum means full, and Okoshi is able to show us the fullness of nothingness that is as soothing as it is haunting. She does not let us decide between the opposites and categories we project onto her work. Instead she insists on an alternative based on the ambivalence of lived experience.
Okoshi offers a world beyond binary divisions and Mukai shows us the destruction possible "in a twinkling of an eye" when humanity is disregarded as "other." Rooted in personal experience, these works point to the implications and violence of an either/or fantasy of the world.