(Osaka, Japan, 1955 - )
Keiji Shinohara is a printmaker and printer who works in the traditional Japanese woodcut medium ukiyo-e. He works both independently and collaboratively, interpreting in print works by other artists.(1) He has worked both in Japan and the United States, and uses elements from both cultures to form his unique blend of representational and abstract imagery.
Shinohara discovered printmaking in Japan in 1975 when he visited a gallery that was exhibiting the work of Uesugi Keiichiro, a renowned contemporary ukiyo-e printer. Shinohara was in his third year of college at Kinki University in Osaka at the time, and he had not yet decided which field to pursue. He visited Uesugi's studio and asked if he could study to be a woodblock printer. Uesugi initially said no, in large part because Shinohara was left-handed and the registration system of ukiyo-e is geared only for right-handed people. However, Shinohara started coming to the studio twice a week, and his persistence impressed the printer. Uesugi took him on as an apprentice on the condition that he learn to print with his right hand within one year.
Shinohara did have difficulty learning how to print with his right hand, as he took almost five years to become proficient. During this time he practiced by printing packing-paper emblems, stationary, and postcards. Uesugi declared him a master printmaker in 1981, but he destroyed Shinohara's first edition of prints, because he felt they were low in quality. For the next five years, Shinohara continued to work at Uesugi Studio, where he produced commissioned work. He initially considered printing as simply an occupation, not an artistic pursuit. He says, "I had a very thin reason for wanting to print. It was not part of a deep dream....I could have gone to a ceramics studio and become a potter. I needed something to grab onto."(2)
The printmaking process that Shinohara uses has a long history. Ukiyo-e means "pictures of the floating world," and it has origins in Asian traditions practiced since 600 C.E. In the seventh century, woodblock printing for book illustration was introduced to Japan from China, and by the seventeenth century prints known as ukiyo-e were prevalent throughout Japan. These woodcuts, which often depicted scenes from daily life or the kabuki theater, were popular with the merchant class. After 1854, Japanese woodblock prints known as hanga became popular in Europe as trade grew between Japan and the West, and eventually artists such as Degas, Manet, and Cassatt used the muted color and flattened forms of ukiyo-e in their works. The main subjects of most ukiyo-e prints are landscapes and women.(3)
The ukiyo-e process is traditionally carried out by three people: the artist, the carver, and the printer. The artist makes a watercolor image and gives it to the carver, then the carver copies the image on tracing paper and attaches it to a block of smooth hardwood. The carver uses knives to create the design in the wood and gouges to remove all the wood except for the design. When an image requires many colors, the carver makes a key block for outlines and then a block for each color. The printer applies watercolor to the blocks with a horsehair brush and uses the same brush to apply rice paste to the color. The paste, made of rice flour and water, allows the watercolors to adhere to the paper when the impression is pulled.
Ukiyo-e works are printed by hand, unlike Western woodcuts. The printer lays the paper on the blocks and rubs them with a baren, which is a flat round pad made of bamboo fibers woven together to make a spiral cord. This cord is covered with a backing made of paper layers lacquered together. While moving the baren over the blocks in circular patterns the printer must exert pressure evenly. The watercolor paint, rice paste, and amount of pressure can be varied to create different visual effects.
Shinohara is responsible for an innovation in technique: he applies water-resistant glue to areas where he wants a lighter color. The areas covered by the glue are less accepting of the water-based paints, so therefore less paint adheres to these areas, and they appear lighter. Shinohara wraps his fingers with masking tape and taps the glue onto the blocks. He usually uses Krazy Glue. This technique blurs outlines and merges forms due to the range of tones it creates.
Shinohara exhibited his prints, but they were not well received by the Japanese art world because he was not formally trained. Also, he was seen as a craftsman instead of an artist because he was working in a traditional medium. Although in Japan the labels of artist and craftsman are beginning to meld, they are usually still thought of as separate occupations. Shinohara is loosely affiliated with a twentieth-century movement called Sosaku-hanga, or "Creative Prints," in which the jobs of the designer, carver, and printer are carried out by one person. This method is usually carried out by artists with formal training who are interested in learning about traditional printing, not printers who wish to be considered artists. In Japan it is rare for a craftsman to be considered an artist, because it is assumed that a craftsman is bound to the rules of the craft to the point that creativity is suppressed.
Shinohara has studied arts other than printmaking in order to become a better artist. He worked with brush painting for two and a half years so that he could increase his knowledge of color. He also learned a lot about carving while he was a shop assistant, because part of his job was to transport blocks from the carver to the printer. The texture of wood and shapes of relief interested him so much that he became interested in the process of carving for the sake of carving, not just for the prints. He even had an exhibition in 1985 at the Higashimon Gallery in Kobe, Japan, where he exhibited only woodblocks.
In 1985, Uesugi died and his studio was turned over to his son, Uesugi Takeshi. Dissatisfied with his career in Japan, Shinohara decided to go to the United States for one year to see how a different country would receive his art. During this year he sent out resumes to galleries and publishers, but he met with little success. Most of the year was spent adjusting to the new country, and the artist was dissatisfied with his progress when the time was over. He decided to stay in America, and his efforts were rewarded in 1987, when a workshop at the Worcester Museum in Massachusetts and a printmaking symposium at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, gave him contacts with curators. These contacts led to invitations to demonstrate the ukiyo-e process. In America, his technical knowledge attracted attention and was considered an enormous asset.
Shinohara's first U.S. exhibition was at the T.E. Wood Gallery in Montpelier, Vermont, which displayed his Taichi series, consisting of nine prints representing his wife's pregnancy with their son, for whom the series is named. The prints include egg-like forms in bright colors. By using personal subject matter instead of traditional ukiyo-e imagery, the artist translated a traditional craft into a modern context. After 1992, Shinohara began creating a new Taichi series once every two years as a "diary" for his son. Some of these prints marked an important turning point in his career, because he began creating representational imagery. For example, Taichi's Garden III (1995) includes large flowers and butterflies.
In 1989, Shinohara decided to begin collaborating with other contemporary artists, creating ukiyo-e versions of their compositions. Some of the collaborations are sponsored by Crown Point Press; in 1982 its founder, Kathan Brown, launched the program to encourage Western artists to collaborate with printers skilled in the Japanese woodcut medium. Through these collaborations Shinohara is challenged to expand the technique of ukiyo-e and the other artists gain the benefit of his technical expertise. The artist gives Shinohara an image, often a sketch or watercolor painting, and Shinohara cuts the wood blocks and makes the prints. Shinohara works with the artist throughout the process and provides artistic insight. He likes to modify the image, adding something unique to the print, such as new texture, color, or shape. He has worked with, for example, Mel Bochner, Rafael Ferrer, Robert Stackhouse, John Newman, Chuck Close, and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Shinohara does not sign the prints makes from his collaborations.
1)Unless otherwise noted, all information comes from Elke A. Pessl, Keiji Shinohara: Interpretations in Woodcut (Middletown, Connecticut: Davison Art Center, Wesleyan University, 1996).
(2)Ibid., pp. 5-6.
(3)Keiji Shinohara: Master Ukiyoe Printmaker (Maryville, Missouri: Northwest Missouri State University, 1991), n.p.
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