The classic strength of Abstract Expressionistic painting echoes in its flinty refusal to go away. Originally, like jazz, it was a symbol of American individualism. The staying power of both is certainly grounded in their soulfulness. The soul of jazz is said to come from its roots in black America. Ever since the days of Jackson Pollock, the passion of Abstract Expressionism has echoed of Asia.
Junko Chodos underlines the point in a small but impressive solo exhibition at Pasadena’s Pacific Asia Museum. She’s a Japanese-born American who lives in Topanga Canyon. Her biography cites exhibitions both in this country and in Japan, but she is only just coming to light in Los Angeles. She’s worth noticing in this exhibition’s numbered series titled “In the Forest of Amida Buddha.” It consists of about 20 unframed vertical Mylar panels whose shape closely resembles the traditional Japanese scroll. White Mylar has a milky translucence that recalls vellum or parchment. When Chodos paints on it in black and red ink and in acrylic, it glows from behind.
The artist’s painterly attack is a wonderful combination of cool control and frenzied slash-and-burn brushwork. Despite high-speed surfaces she rarely garbles orchestration and avoids getting carried away with virtuoso pyrotechnics. The work feels emotionally authentic. The combination brings to mind the active abstractions of Ed Moses, himself a longtime student of Buddhism. But where the history of Occidental modernism tends to seep from his work, Chodos’ latent imagery reflects Asian arts’ traditional preoccupation with nature.
Some compositions revolve around an embedded circle obliquely suggesting the belly of the corpulent Buddha. Others evoke flames, tangled forests or a ferocious dragon head. Among the most distinctive characteristics of Japanese Old Master art is an inclination to narrative. The idea of an abstract story seems almost a contradiction in terms, but a posted statement by the artist suggests she’s attempted it.
She recounts how, in the 11th Century the followers of Amida Buddha believed an apocalyptic moment had arrived in which cosmic law was in decline. This prevented believers from joining the Buddha in “Pure Land” by their own spiritual efforts as they had long done. He would have to come to Earth and rescue his beleaguered followers.
Chodos links this belief to a personal experience. In 1993, she writes, she saw the Buddha in the forest adjoining her back yard, moving like a wind.
At the time, a loved one was mortally ill. She writes that the experience caused her to attempt to include the spirit of the forest in these paintings. Later that year, she recounts, she watched for four days while disastrous fires destroyed the forest where she’d seen the Buddha. Shortly after that, her loved one recovered.
The feelings kindled by her narrative are remarkably close to those ignited by the paintings, She’s achieved something akin to an abstract visual version of programmatic music. That’s quite a feat.