Born in Kapaa, Hawaii, to Japanese parents, Ray Yoshida (1930-2009) was an influential teacher at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he was a faculty member from 1959 until 2003. Believing that artists should be educated in the history of art from all cultures, Yoshida urged his students to examine the ethnographic collections of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago as closely as the Western easel tradition showcased in the galleries of the Art Institute, and also to consider contemporary vernacular art forms. An expansive visual knowledge, he insisted, would best equip young artists to successfully articulate their personal visions and styles.
Unfortunately, Yoshida’s reputation as an educator has long overshadowed his artwork. While a rear gallery in this exhibition at David Nolan explored his pedagogical legacy—juxtaposing several of his drawings with works by Art Institute alumni Karl Wirsum, Jim Nutt and Christina Ramberg, each of whom developed a distinct visual world under his guidance—the main gallery foregrounded Yoshida’s own collages, drawings and paintings, focusing on an exceptionally fertile period in his career, the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Yoshida began exhibiting richly patterned, painterly abstractions of tropical plant forms in the 1950s, but his first critical recognition came with his “Comic Book Specimen” collages, which he began in the late 1960s and resumed in the 1990s. An avid collector of comic books, he established typologies of architectural details, clothing, hand gestures and speech bubbles, isolating examples of each and arranging them on blank pages like natural history specimens. Untitled (Sí), 1993, follows this typical format, while two untitled collages (both ca. 1969) show Yoshida trying a different approach, in which he used his “specimens” as building blocks for strange hybrid figures. In another untitled collage from the series (ca. 1969-70), he explores a triangular composition, as if he imagined these comic-book fragments adorning a classical pediment. One might place Yoshida’s collages in a genealogy from Kurt Schwitters to Öyvind Fählstrom, though Yoshida would have wanted us to also consider vernacular precedents, perhaps including Victorian parlor collages, an example of which was displayed in the rear gallery.
Yoshida’s paintings and drawings from the early 1970s were deeply informed by his comic-book investigations, though he completely transformed and repurposed this source of inspiration into his own mysterious formal language. Some of these works feature rows of jagged and lumpy forms rendered with bold black outlines; resembling torn paper, the forms might be interpreted as cartoonish depictions of his comic-book cutouts—a self-reflexive joke. The stratified arrangement and palette of grays and browns might also be his attempt to draw a parallel between the episodic structure of comic strips and that of ancient stelae, with their rows of pictographs.
Stripes and strata are a central motif in Yoshida’s other works from this period. An untitled oil painting (ca. 1970) presents a sober composition of blue, gray and purple horizontal bands—possibly a nod to the prominent use of stripes in abstractions by Frank Stella and Gene Davis. Felt-tipped pen drawings (ca. 1972) portray visionary landscapes and figures with wavy, multidirectional stripes that share the hallucinatory quality of the concentric lines employed by certain self-taught artists that Yoshida championed, such as Martín Ramírez. Outward-emanating lines are also used in comics to convey motion or invisible energies. In keeping with his teaching philosophy, Yoshida did not directly quote or copy any particular source, but synthesized diverse visual languages into a singular aesthetic.