Kumiko S. McKee - Koto

Gallery > Koto


Minori
Oil Painting on Masonite
80 x 46 inches
2006

Genji's Daughter
Oil Painting on Masonite
28 x 48 inches
2017

Princess Asagao
Oil Painting on Masonite
28 x 48 inches
2002

Akashi Lady
Oil Painting on Masonite
28 x 48 inches
2002

Flue & Phoenix
Oil Painting on Masonite
31 x 54 inches
2002

Fujitsubo
Oil Painting on Masonite
28 x 48 inches
1999

Waka Murasaki
Oil Painting on Masonite
28 x 48 inches
1999

Lady Oborozukiyo
Oil Painting on Masonite
28 x 48 inches
1999


Japanese Women
Oil Painting on Masonite
112 x 48 inches
2000

Innocent
Oil Painting on Masonite
28 x 48 inches
2000

Jealousy
Oil Painting on Masonite
28 x 48 inches
2000

Anxiety
Oil Painting on Masonite
28 x 48 inches
2000

Enlightenment
Oil Painting on Masonite
28 x 48 inches
2000

Noh Masks (Diptych)
Oil Painting
20 each x 40 inches
2000-2001

Noh Masks
Envy

Oil painting on masonite (Diptych)
20 x 48 inches
2000

Noh Masks
Jealousy

Oil painting on masonite (Diptych)
20 x 48 inches
2001


Maiko
Oil painting on masonite
28 x 48 inches
1997

Statement

Since moving to the United States from Japan, I have been more interested in Japanese culture and traditional art than when I was living in Japan. This interest has led to a series of paintings called "Koto" or "Old Capital City", which is based on classical Japanese culture. Japan has changed very rapidly since the Meiji Restoration in 1868. This was a huge turning point in Japanese history and the capital was moved from Kyoto to Tokyo (Kyoto was the capital city from 794 to 1867 AD). Concerning the subjects of my paintings, I am mainly interested in figures, especially female figures. I think females are more emotional than males--they tend to express their feelings abundantly while men tend to hide them. I am particularly interested in faces and hands, which exhibit a variety of expressions. Human emotions and feelings are topics of spiritual territory. They are intangible, genuine; you cannot fake them, and they are limited by words. Those human feelings are mysterious to me and I am trying to express them in my paintings. German expressionists such as Ernst Kirchner or Emil Nolde distorted human figures to express strong feelings, but why should I distort shapes or lose the beauty to express feelings. In my art, I am experimenting how much I can express human feelings using realistic elements and my goal is to express strong emotions while maintaining beauty.

Maiko is the oldest painting in this body of work, and this was the origin of the Japanese series. In this piece, I experimented creating unrealistic space combining two and three-dimensional images. In the image, the faces and hands are rendered volumetrically in three-dimensions using flesh tones while the background and kimono (Japanese traditional dress) is flat with varying patterns. The flatness at the background is contrasting with the three-dimensional figure of the main character and it characterizes paintings as my style. This idea was influenced by Gustav Klimt. The three paintings from the The Tale of Genji series, Fujitsubo Consort, Waka Murasaki, and Lady of Oborozukiyo, came just after this piece.

The Tale of Genji is a story based on the Court life in the Heian period (794 –1185 AD) in Japan and was written by Murasaki-Shikibu in the 11th century. It is considered to be the oldest novel in the world. In the story, Genji, who is the main character, is the son of the Emperor and he is very popular with women. Therefore, he had many concubines and mistresses beside his wife. However, I am interested in those ladies who are involved in Genji's life as the subjects for my paintings. In the Imperial court of the Heian period, each concubine, mistress, or wife was called by a nickname associate with her. Fujitsubo, Murasaki, and Oborozukiyo were the nicknames of the concubine or mistresses of the Emperor's son, Genji. I used symbolic elements to represent each of the figures in the images. For example, the flower wisteria symbolizes Fujitsubo Consort (the Japanese word Fuji means wisteria), cherry blossoms and purple symbolizes Lady Murasaki (the Japanese word Murasaki means lavender), and a hazy moon symbolizes Lady Oborozukiyo (the Japanese word Oborozukiyo means a night with a hazy moon). These elements show who they are in the story.

The other two paintings from the The Tale of the Genji are called Akashi Lady and Princess Asagao. Akashi Lady is one of the concubines of Genji who gives birth to his daughter who becomes an empress later in the story. Princess Asagao is his cousin, but she hides her feeling toward him and keeps distant. Every woman who was intimate with Genji suffers from jealousy including Akashi Lady. Princess Asagao thinks that women meet a sad fate when it comes to love and that it is better to keep a good friendship with Genji or other men. She would rather avoid the ugly competition and jealousy from other women and therefore she remains single.

Akashi and Asagao are nicknames associated with each of them. For example, Akashi is name of the region in Japan where she came from, and the Japanese word Asagao means Morning Glory which projects her image. I used those symbolic elements such as the landscape of Akashi or the Morning Glory to represent each of the figures in the images. In the backgrounds of Akashi Lady and Princess Asagao, I used a classical Japanese painting style and painted images that tell the narrative of The Tale of Genji, which are associated with her and show who she is in the story. In those pieces, I experimented creating unrealistic spaces combining two and three-dimensional images. In the image, the main figure is rendered volumetrically in three-dimensions using flesh tones contrasts with the flat backgrounds with small classical Japanese paintings with gold cloud patterns.

The painting Genji's Daughter is representation of a child between Genji and Akashi Laday, so called Akashi Princess. In the court during the Heian Period, the rank of the mother greatly influenced a child’s future. Even when a child’s father was the Emperor himself, the mother’s hierarchy in life made all the difference as was with the situation with Genji himself. Therefore, Genji makes a plan for what is best for his daughter and Genji’s favorite concubine, Murasaki, who has a higher status in the court and adopts her. Akashi Princess eventually becomes the Empress later on as is foreseen in the dream of her grandfather.

This painting is painted with the same style as Akashi Lady and Princess Asagao. The images in the background of the main figure is a “Genji-e” miniaturist style painting and I referred to the “Genji monogatari gajou (Tale of Genji Album)” that was painted by Jyokei. The image in the middle-right is the scene of her mother sending her for adoption to Murasaki. The image in the bottom-left of the scene depicts Prince Hotaru visiting Genji for planning the ceremony. Genji was immersed in preparations for his daughter's initiation ceremony to the court. The golden mountain at the right upper Conner is Sumeru and the red and white circle is sun and moon. That was the scene that her grandfather who was a monk dreamed before she was born. The sun symbolizes the emperor, the moon symbolizes empress, and Sumeru is the central world-mountain in Buddhist cosmology. He realized that his dream was predicting that the future empress would come from his family and it would be his granddaughter.

Minori is my biggest painting so far, which measures 80x46 inches on canvas. “Minori” means “The Rites” in English and it is the story from chapter 40. Lady Murasaki had been ill for a while and her illness had weakened her. She sensed her death coming soon so she ordered to have a “Houe” (Buddhist memorial service) during the season of the cherry blossoms. As she gazes at the full cherry blossoms and the ritual ceremonies including the “Ryouou no mai” (Dance of Ryouou, which is the ceremonial dance of rites in the Buddhist memorial service), she feels the true beauty of the world. She enjoyed viewing the ceremony, but at the same time felt sad that her life ran short. She sent “Waka” (poetry) to her friends Akashi Lady and Lady Hanachirusato who are also Genji’s concubine. Afterwards, she became very weak during the summer and passed away in the autumn of the same year. The calligraphies in the painting are the poems that she sent to her two friends--one (on the right) to Akashi Lady and another (on the left) to Lady Hanachirusato. The calligraphic text was painted in classical Japanese, which is quite different from modern Japanese.

The painting "Flute and Phoenix" is a rare painting in my work that has a male figure as the subject. I painted the boy as the younger Genji who is far advanced in areas such as playing instruments, composing poem, painting, dancing, and learning. In this scene, the young Genji is playing a Japanese flute exceedingly well which attracts the legendary Phoenix. The Phoenix is drawn by the sweet sound of his flute and appears to listen attentively to the music. A sound does not have a shape, but the shape of the Phoenix and its expression indicate that his playing is outstanding. Again, there is a contrast between the boy and the Phoenix. I painted the boy's figure in three-dimensions while I painted the phoenix in a flat pattern that creates an unrealistic space and makes for a mysterious atmosphere.

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The two paintings Japanese Noh Theater Masks: Envy and Jealousy are a diptych and the idea of "Envy" and "Jealousy" come from the volume of "Aoi no ue" in The Tale of Genji, which is the story about Lady Aoi and Lady Rokujo that is often played in Noh Theater. One of Genji's mistresses Lady Rokujo had strong Jealous at Genji's wife Aoi, and while Lady Rokujo was sleeping, her jealous spirit came out from her body and killed Aoi. In the first image "Envy," I used two Noh theater masks called ko-omote and hannya to express envy; the ko-omote symbolizes a beautiful young woman while the hannya symbolizes an evil or jealous spirit. In my painting, "ko-omote" is addressed on Lady Aoi and "hannya" is Lady Rokujo. In the front, the ko-omote is smiling full with confidence while hannya is glaring at her from the darkness with eye of enmity and deep envy. In the second image Jealousy, the envy reaches the peak and transforms into jealousy. The force of jealousy overwhelms and destroys the mask ko-omote that still showing smiling with full of confidence. Through those two pieces, I wanted to express the emotional conflicts created from the deep, dark side of the human mind.

Japanese Women are a polyptych and I used four Japanese women as subjects from four different generations. Each woman has a different expression on her face and they are holding the Noh masks with different manner. Individually they represent Innocent, Jealousy, Anxiety, and Enlightenment. Emotions are intangible and lurk deep inside of humans. Sometimes they show up on the surface but other times they hide within us. I substituted these intangible feelings with the masks, which have symbolic meanings to represent the feelings.

About Noh Theater Masks:

Noh-theater is one of the famous Japanese traditional theaters, which first appeared around the 14th century and then developed in the 17th century (Edo period). It was the past time of the elite such as the royal family and samurai class. The tradition of Noh-theater has been passed to today's generation spanning over six hundred years. Noh performers play the story from historical events based on old literature or novels about the royal family and court life from the Heian period such as the "The Tale of Genji." The actors wear a traditional mask call "Nohmen," and each mask has a different expression. The use of masks is one of the unique features of Noh. The masks are necessary to wear, when the character is not an ordinary person such as a god, ghost, monster, old man, or a young boy. As all of the actors are traditionally male, all of the female characters require masks. Also, the actors change the masks based on the emotion of the character in the story. The Noh masks are used effectively to express the character's inner movement. The masks are made from wood and each have a slightly different expression to express the inner emotions of the character and it is dramatically enhanced by the direction of lighting on the stage. Some of them are very exaggerated to express the degree of anger and almost entirely lose their human features. With its superb beauty and powerful expressions, the mask is one of the essential elements of beauty in Noh.

Kumiko S. McKee