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Takao Tanabe | In Search of Form

The Project Room ~ The Banner Series 1969 - 1973 and The Toni Onley Gallery ~ Mountains in Winter

This two part exhibit is more a product of fortunate circumstances than preplanned design but as an unlikely pairing, it provides an interesting insight into the creative process and the evolution of an artist. Taken separately the exhibits would provide the viewer with two entirely different experiences and understandings of who Takao Tanabe is and the features of his work.  When seen together, the forty year separation between the bodies of work becomes more understandable and works which may be easily dismissed take on added vigour and relevance when seen in an entire context.

The Toni Onley Gallery offers Mountains in Winter, a series of fourteen recent watercolours by Tanabe which was first shown at the Whyte Museum in Banff this past winter. These works were created to capture the light and crispness of a winter in the Canadian Rockies, an experience which Tak is very familiar with having spent a number of winters teaching at The Banff Centre in the 1970s and 80s. The genesis of this body of work can be traced back to Tak’s first stint in Banff in 1953 and these works resulted after he was awarded a Fleck Fellowship in 2006 which offered him an artists’ residency at the Banff Centre.

The second series of work captures Tak Tanabe at a cross roads. Having moved away from the expressionist abstracts he gained fame for in the 1950s, these works form the tail end of his experiments with hard edged painting and allude to the vast expansive minimal landscape which were lurking on the horizon. The works are the synthesis of all the things which made up contemporary art of the 1960s — they are part pop art, part hardedge painting, part minimalism, part conceptualism and due to their unique format, part sculpture. The works epitomize the art of the day and the art of what was yet to come. Seen unto themselves,  the works could be easily dismissed as a flight of fancy, a whim rather than the dynamic bold expressions of an artist looking to push the limits of the medium while searching for a new sense of direction with which to take hold.

This series of paintings directly informs all that came later and while the notions of landscape may be hard to see, these works are all about space and our place in it, both grounded and ethereal. Tanabe has maintained a strong connection to the natural landscape and the rhythm and movement it makes across the horizon. It is about the relationship we have to that which is grounded in the earth and the great space beyond.  Tak’s paintings reveal his enduring preoccupation with place, suggesting a search to belong to nature – a need to identify with some stretch of land as yet uncontaminated by human kind. Although Tanabe’s landscapes vary topographically, each work seems more directed towards formalist and aesthetic concerns. These scenes have in common, a sense of vast scale and loneliness. For the artist this emptiness is deliberate. Tanabe affirms, “What I want is this completely unoccupied, pristine land, as though I’m the first person to see it. It’s lonely, it’s mysterious, it has wonderful appeal to me. I feel great kinship with it.”

Takao Tanabe was born on September 16, 1926 in Seal Cove, near Prince Rupert, B.C. The son of a commercial fisherman, Tanabe summered in fishing camps on the Skeena River and was interned as a Japanese alien during World War II. Tanabe first studied under Joseph Plaskett in 1946 while at the Winnipeg School of Art andwent on to attend the University of Manitoba. In 1951-52, he studied at the Brooklyn Museum Art School, New York under Hans Hoffman and Reuben Tam and in 1953 at Banff, he studied with the British painter William Scott. Back in Vancouver, Tanabe learned typography working for Robert R. Reid and founded Periwinkle Press. He later travelled to Europe studying at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, London followed by studies in Japanese ink painting (sumi-e) and calligraphy at the Tokyo University of Arts in 1959-61. He studied with Ikuo Hirayama and Yanagida Taiun, a practitioner of single-stroke, large scale Zen calligraphy.  An admirerer of the quietly powerful art of Caspar David Friedrich and Albert Bierstadt, Takao Tanabe currently lives and works out of his home and studio located in Qualicum Beach , B.C.