Painter and Japanese immigrant Michiko Itatani says she chose to move to Chicago by pointing arbitrarily to the middle of a map of the United States. Forty some years later, Itatani is well-known in the city and beyond for her mural-sized paintings and influence as a teacher. DePaul University professor Laura Kina considers Itatani an ‘artistic mother’ and recently launched an online exhibition that explores Itatani’s work through essays, audio interviews and dynamic visual displays.
Kina, an artist and Vincent de Paul professor of Art, Media and Design, was a student in Itatani’s painting class at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Kina’s project “Michiko Itatani: Painting the Cosmic Novel” is one of the inaugural exhibitions of the Virtual Asian American Art Museum, launched this fall to offer “curated materials from U.S. and international repositories to visualize, analyze, and contextualize Asian American art history.” Below, Kina describes her work on the exhibition, which DePaul supported in part by an Academic Initiative grant.
You write that Michiko Itatani was your painting professor, so you have a personal relationship with her. Yet you note that she’s also very private. Why was it important to you to share her work and more about her as an artist with a wider audience?
The inspiration for the exhibition began when one of my students interviewed Itatani for the Asian American Art Oral History Project. Michiko had been very evasive about interviews, but she had trusted me and my student to tell her story.
This project is a feminist act of helping to inscribe another woman of color artist into art history. I consider Michiko one of my artistic mothers, and I wanted to honor her and take an opportunity to learn from her through this project. She is a very important artist who merits being in the canon of Western art history both for her paintings and because of how influential she continues to be as a teacher at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
I was also inspired to write about Michiko because of her story of immigrating from Japan to Chicago and that she stayed here. So often artists come to Chicago for school and then they leave for New York or L.A., so Chicago becomes a fly over city — a place to pass through as opposed to the final destination. I was interested in how she has lived and worked outside of the mainstream. I continue to be blown away by how ambitious her production is and how she doesn’t limit where her ideas come from.
What are some of those ideas, and how do they come through in Itatani’s paintings?
I subtitled my module on Itatani “Painting the Cosmic Novel” because of how she views her painting in relationship to literature. Each painting functions like a chapter in a larger novel/series. She draws inspiration from her life experience, tragedies, her travels, her interests in science, and of course reading—- particularly science fiction. Her painterly marks function like writing. She’s created a complex universe of signs and symbols that move between abstraction and figurative and representational imagery.
How did the experience of curating a virtual exhibition allow you to delve into the artwork and the artist’s vision in a different way than a traditional, physical exhibition?
The online format allows the exhibition to reach a wider audience over a greater length of time than a traditional exhibition. Unlike a traditional website that may go dormant after a period of time, the original content we developed will be digitally archived through New York University.
The virtual exhibition contains digital slideshows of her work, audio of an interview with Michiko, hyperlinks to her collections, and a map of her exhibitions and publications to date. Another module, Jasmine Alinder’s module on photographer James Numata, also contains video. The online format allowed us to create “call out boxes” to go into more depth on particular topics within the body of the main essay.
We launched virtual exhibitions for the “Chicago-Midwest” module, and have teams working on a “New York” module and “West Coast” module. As more and more content goes live, we will be able to link the exhibitions together through keywords and interactive maps.
About the museum
Virtual Asian American Art Museum is a multi-year, inter-institutional digital humanities project initiated and led by the following major partners: the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at NYU, NYU Libraries, Getty Research Institute, Smithsonian Institution, Bowdoin Art Museum, San Francisco State University, DePaul University, Tome, Artl@s/BasART, and Japanese American Service Committee in Chicago. VAAAM also worked in collaboration with the Art Institute of Chicago for the museum’s inaugural regional module “Chicago-Midwest.” Learn more at https://vaaam.tome.press/