Genfukei: “…an occurrence when our inner landscape and [our] outer landscape are recognized as one and the same.” Yumie Kono (2014)

Abstract painter, Yumie Kono, was born in Hiroshima in 1944, and lived through the atomic destruction of the city. This has colored her reception of the world, inevitably influencing the art that issues downstream from those rarified perceptions. One could say that this artist takes nothing for granted. But the real story of Kono’s art starts with her mother, the poet Hideko Kono.

Hideko’s family descended from a long line of Buddhist monks. Her uncle was the nineteenth monk in her family line to inherit the administration of the Hoonji Temple Shimane Prefecture, a Buddhist temple high in the mountains above Hamada. Here, Hideko had been raised and Kono (and the family’s other young children) would be evacuated just before the bomb fell. Within a week of the destruction of Hiroshima, Hideko had travelled into the ruined city, attempting to find her husband and teenage son amid the wreckage. She documented what she found in traditional Tanka poetic verses. After this awful time, Hideko put the poems in a drawer, where they remained until the 1960’s. Hideko never did find her thirteen-year-old son, but her husband had survived the blast and been moved to the hospital in Iwakuni. By the time she reached the hospital he had died. In about 1947, Hideko opened a small bar serving food and drink in the town of Matue in Shimane Prefecture. She brought the children down from the temple one at a time, as she could afford to, but Yumie, being the youngest, went with her mother from the beginning.

Hideko’s sixty-six poems documenting the aftermath of the Hiroshima tragedy were privately published in 1967 with the encouragement of a Tanka master, in a collection called Michi or Road (of life). Kono is regularly hosted for solo exhibitions in prestigious Tokyo galleries, primarily A Square Kanda Gallery. She was recently featured in a solo show at Art Beatus in Vancouver and is soon to be part of ‘Falling,’ a mixed media group show at Martin Batchelor Gallery in Victoria. In this exhibit, Kono will be presenting both paintings and 3-dimensional paper pieces.

In all her travels, Kono found herself primarily moved by the natural landscape. This predilection for unspoiled environments as inspirational ‘material’ has necessitated periodic, lengthy hikes through untrammeled wildernesses and even longer stays in the deep bush. Atsumi Ito of Tokyo’s ‘A Square Kanda Gallery’ describes the artist’s engagement with her environment as “Yumie’s conversation with nature.” He pictures her involvement with her subjects not so much as dispassionate documentation but more as an interactive love affair: “[I]n this conversation you find your inner world. Her work is like very soft weaving on paper with hard pencil—repeating layer upon layer—very sensitive emotion and very strong spirit.”

Kono describes the motive force behind one recent painting as a recurrent dream: “Climbing up through the thick salal bush trail into the deep wood, the beautiful blue purple lake had suddenly appeared. A woman had swum very freely from edge to edge in the lake. Standing beside the lakeshore, I had watched the woman swimmer for a long time. It was déjà vu! My recurring dream had happened right here. In my dream the woman swimmer must be me… Since then I have been dreaming the woman swimmer in the lake.” Kono always ‘brings it home’ in her art, making it immediate, personal, vivid, and accessible to vicarious experience; “…in summer, around 7 o’clock in the evening after finishing the day’s work, my friends and I went to the small lake. Pushing away the yellow lilies and pads to enter the center of the lake, we swam in the very quiet evening… Around 10 o’clock we went home. It was still light before sunset…”

A meditative focus on everyday life is important to this artist; she tends to find the most quotidian events of life’s routines as eminently worthy of a creative response. As background for, or the reason behind, an oil painting or a body of works, I am presented with what amounts to a richly imagistic tale, informing a sensate, verbal response to the ordinary world that borders on poetry: “Canada’s winter is dark. Lighting a candle in the dark morning, I am slowly catching my breath to revive myself from sleep. My bones are creaking like crying sounds and I remembered the pieces of animal bones I had collected in the wood. I place pieces of legs and joint regions on the floor. I put a small skull with one antler fragment on my palm. The jaw and the teeth are large. Living in the wood, animal bones appear like signs and they speak.”

Kono’s choices of color, finish and texture produce mysterious, vibrating depths and complexity in the paintings. Vibrant, humming fields of color provide the grounds for motile forms. Her technique of layering translucent paint with repetitive cross lines result in veil-like surfaces, with delicate, gossamer-like qualities. She continues to seek out the harmonious, exuberant experience of “Genfukei” in the wilds of Canada: “For me, the North offers an outer landscape that is in dialogue with my inner landscape.” Ultimately, Yumie Kono’s abstract landscapes are full of light and seem to depict the substratum of all matter and form, all event and eventuality. Expressive, gestural figures – like pictographs, or Japanese characters – describe the dance of energy itself. An animus, like that released so catastrophically at Hiroshima, is here rendered as pure life force. 

Martin Batchelor Gallery, Victoria
Oct 4 – Oct 30, 2014