Arts & Theater

‘An American Modern’: How Crocker Art Museum is recognizing the work of Chiura Obata

Chiura Obata. A Snow Storm Nearing Yosemite Park Government Center, 1939. Sumi on silk, 20 7/8 x 32 5/8 in. Private collection.
Chiura Obata. A Snow Storm Nearing Yosemite Park Government Center, 1939. Sumi on silk, 20 7/8 x 32 5/8 in. Private collection. Crocker Art Museum

If you haven’t heard of Chiura Obata, you probably aren’t alone. The artist led a whirlwind life, featuring disasters natural and human, but never gained widespread recognition for his work.

That might be about to change, as Obata receives his first retrospective in Sacramento – only the second in the country – at the Crocker Art Museum.

Obata ran away from his home in Okayama, Japan, and immigrated to the United States at the dawn of the 20th century. In the tumultuous years that followed, his work as an instructor of art at UC Berkeley – hard-won after years of manual labor and illustration work – was cut short by the World War II internment of Japanese Americans. Only in 1945 did Obata resume his career, eventually becoming one of UC Berkeley’s first Asian professors.

“Chiura Obata: An American Modern” is a cross-section of a life spent working with ink, silk and paper. On entering, exhibition-goers encounter an over 9-by-6-foot painting, “Setting Sun of Sacramento Valley,” in which gold-crowned flames curl over the sky, somewhere between the northern lights and an inferno. A sea of deep indigo and malachite green resides beneath.

Smaller studies – of, for instance, his wife Haruko Obata’s ikebana (flower arrangements) – surround the centerpiece. These pieces are playful and thoughtful, products of a quick wit and a practiced brush. At Japanese painting demonstrations, Obata used to ask audience members to daub random strokes onto pieces of paper, from which he’d realize pieces of art, exhibition curator and art history professor ShiPu Wang told The Bee.

Obata was inseparable from his sketchbooks and recorded landmark historical events with the same effusive technical mastery. When the 1906 San Francisco earthquake struck, Obata grabbed “as many sketchbooks as possible” and ran to Union Square, he said in a 1965 interview for the Japanese American History Project. “I knew by then that you have to face anything nature gives with your whole body and spirit.” When his family was rounded up for internment, he documented the displacement of Japanese Americans. At UC Berkeley, he drew breezy courtyards, lollygagging Asian American students, a woman in furs under a street corner.

But “Setting Sun of Sacramento Valley” isn’t the only large-scale piece. The Californian landscape, which Obata loved, is represented frequently and expansively. “[In the Sierra] in the evening it gets very cold: the coyotes howl in the distance, in the mid sky the moon is arcing, all the trees are standing here and there, and it is very quiet. You can learn ... within this quietness,” he said in the same interview.

The exhibition also features Obata’s depiction of World War II devastation in Japan, where his saturated color palette of ground minerals registers as a wound.

It’s puzzling, says Wang, that Obata’s work isn’t widely taught or exhibited. He suspects that Obata’s ethnicity contributes to the marginalization, past and present, of his work: he was and remains typecast as an “Japanese American artist,” rather than someone who was trained in multiple evolving traditions and utilized a variety of techniques to unique effect.

Wang’s own curatorial efforts are directed toward canonizing Asian American artists while simultaneously questioning the value of simplistic genealogies.

As Obata himself said, “The agonizing path for painting cannot be reached to perfection by one or a second generation of human beings. To follow this limitless, boundless and profound path of Great Nature is something that you can be born for so many times, again and again.”

“The life of the painter finishes when your life ends. There is never an end.”

If you go

When: Until Sept 23

Where: Crocker Art Museum

Cost: General admission is $12, with reduced rates for seniors, college students, military and children. Admission for members is free. Tickets are available on the museum website.

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Chalay Chalermkraivuth, from Yale University, is a local news reporter for The Sacramento Bee. She reports on arts and entertainment, the LGBTQ community and social justice. She grew up in Bangkok, Thailand.