"Touch and Go: Ray Yoshida and His Spheres of Influence"
For 40 years, Ray Yoshida (1930–2009) mentored everyone who’s anyone in the Chicago art world—at least according to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which hosts this exhibition.
Born and raised in Hawaii, Yoshida began teaching at SAIC in 1958. The beloved professor remained there until a few years before his death, influencing members of the Chicago Imagists and Hairy Who as well as important younger artists including Chris Ware and Mark Booth.
“Touch and Go,” which was curated by John Corbett and Jim Dempsey, the directors of Wicker Park gallery Corbett vs. Dempsey, eschews any mention of Yoshida’s private life—his sisters were his only survivors—focusing exclusively on his inseparable identities as educator and artist. The show seems to convey his personality anyway, however. The exhibition catalog is full of testimonials from colleagues and students who recall his sense of humor, booming voice and laserlike critiques. SAIC alum Jin Soo Kim, now a faculty member, remembers sleeping at the school overnight and being awoken by her adviser, Yoshida: He usually arrived at 6am to look at his students’ work.
“Touch and Go” doesn’t convince us that all of Yoshida’s art should emerge from his more famous admirers’ shadows. For every revelatory collage or subversive painting— Green Thumpin’ compresses sex, sci-fi and gender issues into a brief encounter between a woman and her houseplant—there’s a too-busy composition that’s impossible to parse and executed in a dated ’80s palette or hideous, hospital-linoleum colors. But there’s no shame in being the keystone of one of Chicago’s most significant artistic movements. In the late ’60s, the Imagists and Hairy Who had high-profile exhibitions at the Hyde Park Art Center, Museum of Contemporary Art and institutions beyond Chicago. Their members, who include Roger Brown, Jim Nutt, Ed Paschke (strangely absent from this exhibition), Christina Ramberg and Karl Wirsum, remain among Chicago’s best-known artists; the MCA opens a Nutt retrospective January 29.
When these artists were his students or friends at SAIC, it was Yoshida who encouraged them to explore their unfashionable interests in figuration and pop culture. And he supported them in part by purchasing their work: Many pieces by the artists in Yoshida’s “spheres of influence” come from his own collection. He passed on the belief that folk art, comics, self-taught artists and the “trash treasures” he’d find during weekly pilgrimages to the Maxwell Street Market—everyday visual culture, not just canonized art—are worthy sources of inspiration.
The professor’s passion for comics yielded the amazing Comic Book Specimen series, which he began in 1968. Yoshida commands respect for a then-throwaway medium, organizing some of its elements—faces in profile, muscle-bound chests—into typologies, fusing others into seamless Surrealist collages. Heroines’ va-va-va-voom silhouettes and other only-in-comics distortions of the body echo through pieces such as Touch and Go (pictured, 1980). While Yoshida abandoned complete abstraction early, his emphasis on such stylized figures and wild patterns keep his paintings from becoming representational.
Corbett and Dempsey make it easy to grasp connections between Yoshida’s work and that of other artists, particularly Ramberg. The show leaves us wondering why Yoshida might not have been as close to his later students, who are represented by few works. Still, “Touch and Go” proves those who teach can do something invaluable.