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Originally published May 30, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 2, 2008 at 11:48 AM

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Exhibit review

Peeling back layers reveals origins of Paul Horiuchi's style

Artist Paul Horiuchi struggled to unite his Japanese heritage with the styles of contemporary American culture. He found a unique kind of expression that helped define art in the Northwest.

Seattle Times art critic

Exhibition review

Paul Horiuchi: East and West

through June 15 at the Museum of Northwest Art, 121 First St., La Conner, Skagit County (360-464-4446 or www.museumofnwart.org)

Yes, believe it or not, the two paintings you see here are by the same artist. Even those who have long followed the late Seattle artist Paul Horiuchi's career will find revelations in the retrospective "Paul Horiuchi: East and West" at the Museum of Northwest Art in La Conner. Known as a master of collage, Horiuchi's abstract compositions of torn and cut paper are so ubiquitous in local collections that it's easy to take them for granted. But how did Horiuchi attain that distinctive style? You'll find out in this show.

"Paul Horiuchi: East and West" begins with the rather startling "Portrait of Sugawara no Michizane," painted around 1919, when Horiuchi was just 13. Born in Japan in 1906 as Chikamasa Horiuchi, the boy studied classical sumi and watercolor techniques that allowed him to portray the historical figure, a famous poet and scholar. It's standard subject matter, but a remarkably accomplished painting for a boy. It won a prize in a national competition.

Perhaps the young Horiuchi felt the need to prove himself. His parents had immigrated to the United States, leaving him in the care of relatives. At the age of 14, he sailed to the United States to join them in Wyoming, where his father worked for the Union Pacific Railroad. Shortly afterward, though, his father died and the young Horiuchi lied about his age to get a job with the railroad. In his free time, he began teaching himself European-style painting methods and materials. With the perq of free train travel, he began visiting his cousin in Seattle and eventually moved here.

While wandering in the International District in the 1950s, the artist noticed layers of old advertisements peeling from storefronts. He got the idea of brushing color and calligraphy on paper, then gluing bits on canvas. The 1956 "Weathered" hangs at MoNA, showing a dark painted background with fragments of colored paper and calligraphy on the surface, like the tattered remains of old signs. After some experimentation with combined paint and collage, Horiuchi soon took the leap into a kind of personalized abstract expressionism that became his hallmark.

In the 1960s, Horiuchi's painting "Edge of Time" held its own hanging next to a dramatic Franz Kline at the contemporary art exhibition for the Seattle World's Fair. Horiuchi already had adapted the collage look to create his large glass mosaic "Seattle Mural" for the fairgrounds. The mural — which gives the Mural Amphitheatre its name — remains a popular landmark at Seattle Center.

Some of Horiuchi's grandest midcareer paintings anchor the retrospective: the 1962 "Genesis" (shown here) from the collection of Seattle University. The knockout 1964 "Monolithic Impasse" and 1960 "The Wall" from the Seattle Art Museum. The stirring 1960 "Abstract Screen" from the collection of Fay Hauberg Page.

Guest curator Barbara Johns chose wisely. Johns helps us see the influence of Mark Tobey in the calligraphic white strokes hovering in Horiuchi's 1957 "Matsuri" and the two-way exchange of Asian and Western art that grew into the Northwest School. The later paintings in the chronological retrospective adapt to the changing times of the 1970s and '80s, with straight lines and a more orderly style abstractions. Only in those later years does the work at times begin to strike me as less challenging, more decorative.

The small side gallery at MoNA reveals another side of Horiuchi's development. Here you can see his early watercolor landscapes as they vacillate between Western-style town and waterfront scenes and very Japanese homages to snowy landscapes and the great face of Mount Fuji. Finally the two styles integrate as the Paul Horiuchi we know. A new book by Johns, with the same title as the exhibition, tells the full story of Horiuchi's life and includes many images from the exhibition. The artist died in 1999 at the age of 93.

In 1995, the Wing Luke Asian Museum honored Horiuchi with a lifetime achievement award. Now, with the opening of the new Wing Luke this weekend and its celebration of the work of artist George Tsutakawa, it's a good time to renew our appreciation for both artists. Horiuchi and Tsutakawa were pioneers who struggled to unite their Japanese heritage with the styles of contemporary American culture. Both men found a unique kind of expression that helped define art in the Northwest.

Sheila Farr: sfarr@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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