By Victoria Dalkey
Art Correspondent, Sacramento Bee
Grace Munakata's new paintings at b. sakata garo mix abstraction, pattern and imagery in fascinating ways that challenge our notions of what painting can be. Throughout these new works, threads of narrative emerge and recede, mixing past, present and future. In Munakata's hands, time is flexible and imagery is caught in a flux of being and becoming.
Throughout the show, the figure of a young girl appears and reappears. In "Vishnu Pad," she stands on the banks of the Ganges River, where a distant figure bathes in the healing waters. In "Loops," looking a bit older, on the verge of womanhood, she stands on what might be a beach, gazing at a pair of looped forms on the sand. In these two works she is the central focus, an avatar of Munakata's girlhood.
As the show progresses, the figure is subsumed and at times nearly overwhelmed by landscapes that are essentially abstract. Still, in "Bittern," she asserts herself in a wild scene of woods and water, surrounded by water birds, including herons and a bittern, which elusively hovers over her head as a linear drawing in paint. In this painting, fragments of images – branches, stones, vegetation, water – contend with patterns based on an obi that belonged to Munakata's mother or grandmother. Here the real, the fictive and the remembered blend.
In "Stones on the Water," a girl balances on a stone in a landscape of colorful shapes, fabric patterns, and dark calligraphic lines that capture the gesture of tangled branches or twisted twigs. The girl's precarious position on the rock in a creek is echoed by the tentative balance between painting, drawing and pattern on the canvas. In "Wade," the girl is very small, wading through a landscape of natural and brightly colored synthetic forms.
In "Potto," a shy bear takes the place of the girl, at the center of an antic composition marked by bulbous cartoonlike shapes, linear markings and curving tree limbs creating what Munakata describes as a "rainforest" around the elusive creature.
In "Riot of Lilies," a burst of floral imagery – calla lilies and leaves – swirl in a seductive work that features ghostly female forms in the upper right of the canvas. It's a sensual play of wit, as is "Maypole," in which leaves, buds and stones stack up under tendril-like lines. Like many of Munakata's paintings, it combines flat shapes with passages of drawing that create a multilayered effect.
The show also includes a number of small works in acrylic, collage and wax pastel that are purely abstract. "Hanuman's Stones" is a vibrant play of color in which Prussian blue sings near the center. "Cabin John Creek" is a more discrete work with figurative implications. "Dennis the Menace Park" is light and lyrical with comic passages that somehow do call up the cartoon character.
In a statement on her website, Munakata writes: "I grew up in a Japanese American household where Western and Japanese objects and customs formed a contrasting collage. A 19th century cast iron lantern shaped like a pagoda sat on the hearth beneath golf trophies, Noh masks, and a painting of the My studio, strewn with colored papers, photographs and drawings reminds me of my mother's sewing room with stacks of multicolored fabrics, boxes of jewel-like buttons, and pinned pattern pieces laid out on the floor."
Munakata, who received her MFA from the and has taught for many years at East Bay, works in such a way that she mixes and overlays sources from literature, visual art, nature, memories and present events into collagelike images in which time is elastic, a panorama of superimposed patterns and images rendered with a vigorous yet sensitive touch.