Sur Collages by Jimi Suzuki
On exhibition at the Henry Miller Memorial Library
Reception July 13 -- through August 15, 1991
Highway One -- Big Sur, California (1/2 mile south of Nepenthe)
Jimmy Suzuki, in this delightful array of collage compositions, alchemically distills an iconic imagery condensed from a global cloud of inspiration. The worlds of Duchamp and Henry Miller both figure seductively in these kaleidoconstructions of Nippon, Amerika and la belle France. Together with the threads of Gallic cultural tradition given (both by Miller and Duchamp) a decidedly gringo twist, Suzuki weaves the essential third strand--for three are pulled from the tail of the mythic Night Mare with which to ply the braid, from which is tied the taming lasso. This new third line could be drawn from Narita to San Francisco, and interlaces the world of the Pacific Rim: from Big Sur to Kamakura, California to Japan.
HENRY AND ...
One of Jimmy Suzuki's own earlier paintings provides the background for "Henry and June." A tondo, nay, an oval. Here, the artist has made a copy from a photograph of a painting of the late 1960s, towards the end of the Vietnam war, portending the enormity of the Apocalypse. The male figure to the left, contains an "ice bucket" pot made by the California sculptor and ceramicist, Peter Voulkos; while to the right, the female is composed in part from an elegant Italian handbag. The red dot--such a fail-safe device of composition, famed in the early 20th century work, for example, of both Kandinsky and Klee--here came via Ferrari.
Dominating the left center of the composition is a hat much like the one worn by the Henry Miller character based on the Diaries of Anais Nin in the recent movie Hen and June; and inside the hat, a detail suggested by a Baroque painting of a hunting scene. But the hat itself has a biographical lineage. While growing up in pre-war Tokyo, Jimmy used to apply his young artistic talents as a window dresser for the family business: his father was one of the city's preeminent haberdashers. One of the most rakish Japanese styles of that time favored the Bogie image, with a cinched trench coat and a perennial snap-brimmed hat.
"It's all right, you know." We take as given--for starters, anyway-- the SUR COLLAGES of Jimmy Suzuki. And to triangulate (psychically, critically, art historically) these sly, evocative little gems of expression, let us take the work of two other artists: the secretive masterpiece Etant donnés which Marcel Duchamp assembled from 1946 to 1966 (20 of the last 22 years in his lifetime), and the extraordinary 1939 account by Henry Miller, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, written after years as an expatriate, returning to inspect, with an open heart, the clay feet of Amerika's dream, but taking it as given.
PHILLYDOOR: IE DA RO NE -- ETANT DONNES -- WE TAKE AS GIVEN
What we seem to have here is a trialectical motif/motive for this verbal dalliance: an approximation in language for Suzuki's three-way visual puns Let us now turn to the collage called "Phillydoor." Suzuki pasted up the principal parts of the piece from a photo showing the exterior--the red bricks from Cadaques surrounding the old wooden door also brought from Spain--of Duchamp's Philadelphia diorama-like installation piece, Etant donnés.
Now, the sound of this work's title can become one of several approximations in Japanese: to such an ear, perhaps IE DA RO NE, or more literally, EI-TAN-DO-NE. The latter yields: E = picture, I (if the dipthong is heard) = mind; TAN = red (the color of bricks, or lead oxide, so they say); DO = temple (or, as a foreign word phonetically borrowed by Japanese, DOA = door); ne = root, source. Hence, the source of this mind-picture is the reddish door like a temple. Otherwise, one could sound it somewhat differently and understand: EITAN = an exclamation of admiration; DEN = legend tradition (and key to phrases meaning biography, commentary, exposition, a way, manner, a trick, a game); E = picture. So, from this punning of Duchamp's French title in Japanese, we derive an astoundingly appropriate English description of Suzuki's collage and its art historical relationship to one principal source of inspiration -- a circleage of allusion, NE?
Another way this one works: Francois Andre Danican Philidor (1726-95), known for his Tom Jones and Le Diable a Quatre of the French theater, also possessed (as did Marcel Duchamp) a genius for chess; his Analyse du jeu des échecs, was published in 1749, and he played simultaneous blindfold chess exhibition matches. Also, the Philly door looks like a door behind which a horse, perhaps a filly, could be stabled.
"Unscrew the doors from their jambs!" Henry Miller says. In his collage "Phillydoor," Jimmy Suzuki begins by slitting the photo of Etant donnés, opening up its pictured doors in a way the posthumous (Paramita) piece by Marcel Duchamp never does. As the Mexican poet, Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz, describes the Philadelphia installation:
"The visitor goes through a low doorway, into a room somewhat on the small side, completely empty. No painting on the plastered walls There are no windows. In the far wall, embedded in a brick portal topped by an arch, there is an old wooden door, worm-eaten, patched, and closed by a rough crossbar made of wood and nailed on with heavy spikes. In the top left-hand corner there is a little window that has also been closed up.... But if the visitor ventures nearer, he finds two small holes at eye level. If he goes even closer and dares to peep, he will see a scene that he is not likely to forget."
That is Duchamp's voyeuristic artifice, worthy of the SHUNGA tradition: the naked girl stretched out on leaves and twigs, "the pubes strangely smooth." In this little magic show, the lamp, the waterfall and the clouds are further examples of the nine ways in which the Whole of it may be seen, according to the venerable Diamond Sutra. In Suzuki's extrapolation of the scene, the door is wedged open by a little rock looking something like a skull, a memento mori found in the artist's backyard in Davis, California--perhaps dropped there by a bird. The large amorphous image on the left is formed of the dried scum from the bottom of a little pool: "water dust," recalling Man Ray's 1920 photograph of Duchamp's Dust Breeding that immortalized months of accumulated dust on the back of the Large Glass, finally affixed by Duchamp to the area of the Sieves, giving them "a kind of color." Suzuki, however, follows Henry Miller's great line quoted in Volume 1, Number 1, of the Henry Miller Memorial Library Newsletter:
"No more peeping through keyholes!" MITSUE
Duchamp's friend, the American photographer Man Ray, inscribed the following cryptic lines in his "Bilingual Biography," originally published in the March 1945 issue of View dedicated to Duchamp:
"Aux Belles Japonaises; J'ai perdu mon chapeau, mais, toi to n'avais toujours ni temps ni argent a perdre."
And as Shuzo Takiguchi writes most meaningfully, "Duchamp never visited Japan, but he left his signature there," But Marcel collaborated with Takiguchi by signing some images created by the Japanese artist called "Rrose Selavy in the Wilson-Lincoln System," concocted from double images of Man Ray's photograph of Duchamp's profile and the multiplied signatures of Rrose Sélavy, the Duchampian feminine alterego.
Suzuki's visual puns are sometimes as intimate and arcane as those published by Duchamp using the pen name and persona of Rrose Sélavy. The collage "Mitsue" features a sensitive drawing of the artist's niece, posed much like one of Matisse's odalisques. The Suzuki family was visiting Southern California, ensconced in a luxurious Beverly Hills hotel. Out shopping on Rodeo Drive, Mitsue had her uncle buy her the little Moroccan hat since the evening's plans called for a dinner at one of the local restaurants featuring North African cuisine. The original study was to have been a formal nude, but the collage incorporates haremesque pantaloons cut from another watercolor study of his niece by Suzuki. Whether or not this is simply modesty, inevitably the Duchampiste recalls the Rroseate epigrammatic texts of around 1920 sur Une nymphe amie d'enfance, and the strangely apt, "My niece is cold because my knees are cold." Why Not's knees?
Toward the beginning of The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, Henry Miller lists a few things that stood out most strongly in his mind after that wondrous, funny, phantasmagorical trip across America originally intended to effect a reconcilliation with his native land after many years the expatriate, the escapist, the renegade:
"The most exciting and the most intelligently chosen collection of modern paintings was the privately owned collection of Walter Arensberg, of Hollywood." That would have been the collection now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, containing the most important of Marcel Duchamp's work. Other principal works by Duchamp can be found in the Mary and William Sisler collection now at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and Katherine Drier's Societe Anonyme collection now at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Before the 20th century art and Pre-Columbian sculpture of Arensberg's Francis Bacon Foundation were donated to Philadelphia in 1950, several major museums and universities on the West Coast were asked if they would house the collection, but not one was seriously interested in providing a home for those great works that had caught Miller's astute eye by 1945.
As Ezra Pound long ago pointed out, poets and artists, clearly more than scientist technocrats, are the antennae of a culture. Henry Miller repeatedly proves this thesis: "A wonderful world we might have made of this new continent if we had really run out on our fellow-men in Europe, Asia and Africa. A brave, new world it might have become, had we had the courage to turn our back on the old, to build afresh, to eradicate the poisons which had accumulated for centuries of bitter rivalry, jealousy and strife. A new world is not made simply by trying to forget the old. A new world is made with a new spirit, with new values."
One of the surest traditional ways to develop these new values is by wandering, travelling, leaving home to visit some corners, at least, of the larger kingdom of the whole earth. Yet, as The Air-Conditioned Nightmare counsels: "The acqusition of knowledge, the accumulation of fact, is noble only in those few who have that alchemy which transmutes such clay to heavenly eternal gold."
One of the most practical and obvious manifestations of applied alchemy is in the kitchen. In the self-portrait collage "Italian Cook," Suzuki (an accomplished adept of la cuccina italiana) documents the global nature of the vision and its gastro-artistic realization. The title is from Modesto Lanzone, one of San Francisco's reknowned restauranteurs. Among the Yamato elements are YOJI, the toothpicks used in the Tea Ceremony, arrayed along the bas de page, and the image of a most exquisite dancing lady in traditional costume, crossing the mind of the Cook, like the answer to a prayer. The preoccupation perhaps, has to do with the dish--as Rrose Selavy would call it--unless it a rien (du) coq--Poulet Exaucé--since Suzuki was born in the year of the Water Bird, implying a subtle totemic alimentary reluctance. It could be Chicken Divan or Divine, or a boned (dessose chicken in sauce alla cacciatore--of the hunters in "Henry and June").
Suzuki, Miller and Duchamp all reveal in their artistry that alchemical vision prefiguring not just the next century, but the next millennium, imagining some new global consciousness, transcending the parochial notion of nation-state as surely as do the evolving structures of multinational corporate finance. Marcel Duchamp fled to avoid the insanities of two world wars, leaving France for America in 1915, and New York for Buenos Aires in 1918 when the U.S. entered the war. Both in Europe during the 1930s, Duchamp and Miller had each left Europe for America by the early years of the Second World War. And in attempting to tame the Nightmare of Air-Conditioned Amerika, Henry Miller saw that for art and the best business, also, the preferred climate is peace: "To know peace man has to experience conflict. He has to go through the heroic stage before he can act like a sage. He has to be a victim of his passions before he can rise above them. To arouse man's passionate nature, to hand him over to the devil and put him to the supreme test, there has to be a conflict involving something more than country, political principles, ideologies, etc. Man in revolt against his own cloying nature--that is real war. And that is a bloodless war which goes on forever, under the peaceful name of evolution. In this war man ranges himself once and for all on the side of the angels Though he may, as individual, be defeated, he can be certain of the outcome--because the whole universe is with him."
Having grown up in Carmel and along the Big Sur coastline, I once went up the road to Partington Ridge to visit Henry. For me at the time he was like the Great Man of the I Ching. I was on the verge of visiting Europe for the first time, and approached as the admirer and the student of history, to sit at the feet of the histor, the Wise Man, one of the archetypal authors of histories. Seeking the flattery of encouragement, I was surprised by: Clichy = cliché; Montmerde; In the south of France now the women all wear pants; Can't afford Cannes; And now Nice is only not-so-bad. I left inspired all the same. Here again on this incomparable Big Sur coast, Jimmy's SUR COLLAGES happily serve to remind me of that universe within him and within Henry, and within all of us.
--- Kurt von Meier May, 1991
Curator's Note: We are attempting to locate copies of the collage images discussed in this article, and will post them as they become available. Jimi Suzuki spent time teaching at Sacramento State University, where he and Kurt struck up a close friendship. Born in 1933, Jimi is still alive and well, and living in Tokyo. Here's a fairly recent photograph of him.