Harry Mitsuo Kiyooka: Artist, Educator, Activist

Inside a rectangular field of vibrant tangerine stands a sequence of vertical green stripes outlined with a muted blue. Its title, 14 Oranges, relates to the painting’s dominant colour and most strikingly, evokes rows of evergreen trees suffused by the fragrant fruit. 

The painting is the first work in an expansive and highly diverse exhibition, Harry Mitsuo Kiyooka – Artist. Educator. Activist. (1928-2022), on view at Nickle Galleries until April 28.

While Kiyooka is best known for his lively, hard-edged geometric abstractions, viewers can see his lesser-known subjects like portraiture, early landscapes, the Kalpa series, and other works revealing his life-long preoccupation with Venice and the New School of Paris aesthetics. 

Curated by Mary-Beth Laviolette, the show is delightfully non-linear. Rather, it unfolds within small groupings such as “The Making of An Artist,” “Venice” and “Kalpa Paintings,” which are imbued with stories about Kiyooka’s familial history, educational accomplishments and the many travels that influenced his work. What stands out is how Kiyooka was not beholden to any one school or style, but open to exploring other ways of seeing and creating.

Kyooka’s formative period included three years of study in Italy, where he was struck with a classical muse that found its near-perfect expression in his monumental 1970s abstractions of the Aegean Series. By that time he was also influencing a younger generation of artists at the University of Calgary, where he taught for 28 years, starting in 1961. Later he would embrace an advocacy role in “a city with no eyes” by co-founding the Calgary Contemporary Arts Society and opening the Triangle Gallery of Visual Art.

The fourth of seven children, Kiyooka was born to Japanese immigrants in Calgary in 1928. Poverty and prejudice were part of his family’s story. With the Second World War came the termination of his father’s work as a hotel bellhop and the family’s arduous attempt to farm in Opal, a small community in Eastern Alberta.

Two early landscapes from 1950 highlight Kiyooka’s affinity for pure colour and also reveal his life-long appreciation for higher education. Untitled – The Handhills and Untitled – Teacherage, Handhills School were painted while working for a small rural school. In the latter work, Kiyooka depicts himself carrying water pails towards a school house in the grasslands. Rendered in warm browns contrasted with luminous blue washes, his affinity for light and optical abstractions begins to emerge.

Surprisingly, by the end of the 1950s, Kiyooka had earned four degrees including his B.Ed from the University of Alberta, a BFA from the University of Manitoba, an MA from Michigan State University and an MFA from University of Colorado. An early inclination toward abstraction would be fueled by his studies in the US focused on the Abstract Expressionists. 

But Kiyooka’s relationship with abstraction was not a puritanical one. His interest in how light affected colours and in the more expressive possibility of paint can be found across his work. This combined with an extensive exposure to both classical styles and the School of Paris explain the curiosities that can be found in his abstract works.

In an essay on Kiyooka’s show, Green Spring, at Stride Gallery in 2007, Chris Cran aptly notes, “The works in this exhibition display a remarkable range in their colouration, opticality, materiality, and gestural variance.” For example, in earlier works Kiyooka’s brushstrokes are “loose, quick and thinly applied” whereas in later works they emerge in pure graphic form with colour contrasts that give an optical punch. 

But it’s not just that. 

In many of Kiyooka’s abstract works, his compositions meander away from, disrupt and even seem to transcend their hard-edge, geometric force with more nuanced and surprising punctuations like softness, disorder, and spatiality or depth. For example, in The Skein of Time, a flat field of deeply saturated red surrounds a central window covered in a criss-cross of coloured sticks. An illuminated sky expands into infinite space. Or in Tuscania, geometric forms seem to push and pull in a trance-like dance in a soft pastel field. 

Such nuances can be better understood once you see his portraiture and the various works from his Venezia Series and the Kalpa Paintings.

In contrast to the hard-edge abstractionists, Kiyooka was also exposed to tachisme or lyrical abstraction, popular with French artists. The movement, which rejected both Cubism and geometric abstraction, embraced spontaneous brushwork, drips, scribble marks and blobs of paint applied from the tube. 

We can also see this influence in later works like the Kalpa paintings where Kiyooka applied some 50 coats of acrylic paint using a spray gun over boxes made in birch. And the Venice paintings, which Kiyooka built up in heavily encrusted layers of impasto that pay homage to both Turner and Monet in their atmospheric light and impressionist surfaces.

In a way, Kiyooka came full circle as a modernist. He painted at the front lines of geometric abstraction for 30 years and then circled back to explore its European roots. The term wanderlust comes to mind as you journey through Kiyooka’s life and take in his extraordinary art. What emerges is a highly focused artist who had an insatiable desire to explore the world and bring his musings back to the community he loved most. ■

Harry Mitsuo Kiyooka – Artist. Educator. Activist. (1928-2022), is on view at Nickle Galleries until April 28.

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