Tetsu Okuhara has clearly discovered his visual voice as a photographer. His carefully constructed images convey powerful feelings and an aesthetic sensibility peculiar to the potential of contemporary photography. Okuhara's road to developing his unique methods of image making has been a particularly interesting one.
In Chicago, a boyhood accident left him sightless in one eye. Despite this condition, he took up Karate, an activity he continued for over twenty years. Through the discipline of Karate he learned how to economically use space and streamline motion to create a focused release of explosive energy. This martial arts activity strongly influenced his special sense of spatial relations.
Moving from Chicago to New York City, where he first developed his interest in photography, Okuhara pursued a career which met with early success. He cultivated a style perhaps best described as 'photographic cubism.' Using this approach, he took the human figure and flattened out its volumes into pristine photographic rectangles, precisely placed to form grids, and then reconstructed it to read as a 'figural landscape' replete with aesthetic emotion and sensual information. His nationally and internationally exhibited work was collected by museums, and the artist was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and an N.E.A. Grant, among others, and most recently, the Phelan Award.
Fifteen years ago, a renewed interest in Eastern philosophy evolved and Okuhara became a yoga practitioner; this development had a profound impact on his artwork. The formal grid system dissolved and in its place a liberating collage effect developed. The placement of image fragments assumed a more abstract and magical juxtaposition which increasingly informed the underlying emotional context of these seemingly serene pictures. His image boundaries, no longer limited to a rectangular format, extended in different directions as spatial relationships became increasingly more complex and exciting.
The artist's early life, having been disrupted by the U.S. Government's policies during WWII, resulted in the Okuhara family being forced from their home in Los Angeles to be placed in an internment camp in Colorado until the war ended. Okuhara's present series, his Hagiwara work, provides visual affirmations about being Japanese that were earlier negated when he and his family were interned. Through this compelling work, he is rediscovering his family roots. Hagiwara is a mountain in Japan covered by forests of bamboo, and pine with terraced rice fields stretching down nearly to the sea. On the main island of Honshu, Hagiwara has for 800 years served as the ancestral home for the Okuhara family. Based on the artist's recent trips there, much of the newer Hagiwara works have adopted the look of shrines or altar pieces honoring family elders.
The connection between past and present, East and West, land and family, makes a strong statement about the interconnectedness of family and a sense of time and place. Tetsu Okuhara's remarkable journey as an innovative artist who knows what he desires to visually bring into being has been an extraordinary passage that creates prescient memories and associations that are both personal and universal in their scope.
Barry Malloy (c)1996
(Barry Malloy is a painter and photographer living in New York City.)