Southern California dreaming

So-Called Laws of Nature: Paintings by Takako Yamaguchi

Takako Yamaguchi installs her work at the Nevada Museum of Art.

Takako Yamaguchi installs her work at the Nevada Museum of Art.

Photo By Kris Vagner

With a name like Takako Yamaguchi, a slight Japanese accent and a refined, splash-dazzle painting style, she sometimes gets categorized as a “Japanese artist.”

“I think I’m very much a California painter,” says Yamaguchi, a petite, well-spoken artist who’s been working in Los Angeles for more than 30 years.

As a viewer, I admit that the white-capped waves and steep, misty hills that roll across her canvases initially make me think: “Asian landscape.”

But then I notice repeated Australian-Aboriginal-looking designs stacked alongside spray-painted lines.

She steps around her large canvasses, laid on the floor at the Nevada Museum of Art, where she was preparing her work for installation in a second-floor gallery, and says, “It’d be nice to be piggybacked onto 1930s California painters.”

It all comes into focus. Those Great Depression-era artists she mentions tended to paint somber, industrial scenes and compromised landscapes, sometimes rendered bold and complex, sometimes simplified into almost drippy, sunshine-and-noir illustration. That angular, pro-work, Socialist-type painting that’s been recently reborn in poster advertising came from this time period. (Think tough women in head scarves flexing biceps under rolled-up sleeves.) Influences included Edward Hopper (the granddaddy of lush-but-stark American painting), Mexican muralists such as Diego Rivera, and movie studios, including Disney, where many painters made their livings.

It’s easy to see how Yamaguchi relates to this mix. Her paintings, collectively titled So-Called Laws of Nature, show fractured, desolate landscapes with a golden glow, where planes of sight go in all directions. The pictorial space, pleasantly disorienting, works just like it does in the where’s-the-horizon confusion of smog-obscured cityscapes from vintage sci-fi bookjackets.

There’s a focus on weather. Clouds swirl ominously (or is it romantically? Or both?); waves crash above and below everything; and you can’t always tell a cloud from a wave.

There are references to just about any era of graphic design between the ‘30s and now, including spiky, vertical sunrays that would have been right at home in the ‘80s.

Yamaguchi also crams in a veritable abridged encyclopedia of painting techniques, from watercolor-esque washes to spots of gold-blotted, marbled paper.

Some scenes are slightly abstracted. Some are practically melting.

Even using this many styles and techniques at the same time, Yamaguchi maintains tight control on her apocalyptically serene images.

The artist says she’s most interested in maintaining a balance between chaos and order.

“I’m interested in chaos as the form of a storm,” she says. “When you try to realize it, it takes the form of order.”

She’s noticed the world becoming more unified and more fractured at the same time, artistically and politically, and that’s what she paints.

Judging by her paintings, Yamaguchi is at peace with the cosmic imbalances of both nature and culture, and she doesn’t let their inescapable craziness obscure her way of looking reverently at things.

Intimidating waves pose cheerily in mid-crash. Cartoonish, orange volcanoes spurt gracefully. Rainbows curl impossibly. Anyone looking for a backdrop for their own drama, be they superhero or leading lady, could find it.

Southern Californian to a T.