Review: Hodaka’s Far Out and Spot On Modernism

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Asian Art Museum, San Francisco // December 16, 2022 – May 01, 2023

Cheers to the Asian Art Museum and exhibition organizer Yuki Morishima for presenting the first solo exhibition of Yoshida Hodaka in the United States. Hodaka was an influential Japanese artist with a voracious appetite for innovation and experimentation. Schooled in traditional woodblock print techniques, Hodaka seemingly leapt through the looking glass to imbue his work with a thrilling exploration of genre-bending subjects, scenes, and processes. 

The nearly 50 pieces on display trace Hodaka’s development as an artist and the range of his creative curiosity, which seems to have been matched and likely fueled by his extensive travels around the world. Mid-century, Hodaka begins to layer contemporary methods – including photography, photo etching, photo transfer, and collage – into his woodblock prints. There’s an exuberance, playfulness, and free-thinking excitement in the work that even today communicates a sense of widening possibilities. 

Rather than rejecting the tradition of nature as subject matter, Hodaka simply allows surrealism and slices of pop culture to enter his scenes. In a series from 1973, the artist created 12 poster-size Zodiac Landscape prints that could easily have been produced to promote Western bands of the era from psychedelic to prog rock. Collage plays a heavy role in the success of these vignettes, in which the classical characteristics and motifs of each astrological sign are recast and harmonized with cameos from Hodaka’s life and travels. 

Hodaka apparently visited San Francisco in the 1950s and 60s. One wonders if he ever crossed paths with artists Alton Kelley and Stanley Mouse. No doubt he’d have had the chance to see their iconic posters for the Grateful Dead and others. Like Hodaka, both Kelley and Mouse were creative sponges, inspired by Asian scrolls and ceramics, as well as Bauhaus, Art Nouveau, and Indigenous American Art. Not to stray too far afield, but it’s worth noting that Vincent van Gogh was greatly influenced by Japanese printmaking, which catalyzed his approach to light, spacial effects, and color. 

These connections and cross-pollinations aren’t just interesting from the standpoint of art history. Creativity is a long chain made stronger by the way exposure to novel ideas pushes us forward and reinvigorates what’s come before. Art is a lens. Hodaka not only introduced a kaleidoscopic shift, but expands the aperture for his viewer, particularly in work from the last two decades of his life. The show culminates with photographs from the 1980s to 1995, which are lyrical tributes to the beauty found in the most quotidian details – from an isolated fire hydrant to abraded walls.

Though many of these photos were taken from his visits to foreign lands, Hodaka removes the traditional sense of place that a photograph communicates by cutting up and rearranging the elements. In doing so, he makes the personal universal. Often, the resulting photographs are magnified, abstracted, and color-washed. Viewed next to the feisty Zodiac prints, one feels a simpler sense of the artist’s pleasure in capturing the sensation that texture or hue in isolation can conjure. They feel like tone poems; they still the mind and open the spirit. Apparently, Hodaka was also a poet. So there you go. —Tamsin Smith

Color Trip: Yoshida Hodaka’s Modern Prints is on view at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco through May 1, 2023.

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