Painting Seattle

Kamekichi Tokita and Kenjiro Nomura ran a sign shop in Japantown, the neighborhood destroyed by WWII and the illegal internment of its residents. Before that catastrophe, they were both hard-working Issei, first-generation immigrants legally excluded from gaining citizenship, with little free time to lug their easels around Seattle to paint street scenes. And many of those scenes on view at SAAM are immediately recognizable to anyone who walks the city today. Both depicted the intersection of Yesler and Fourth, for instance, from a grassy perch looking down at the overpass; and the museum presents the two views side by side—as, indeed, the two men often worked together in the open air. Their style was once called "American Scene," a kind of Hopper-esque realism we today associate with WPA artists. (Both contributed to the Public Works of Art Project, a precursor to the WPA; and both were exhibited at the new Seattle Art Museum whose founder, Richard Fuller, was keenly devoted to Asian art.) These oil paintings are mostly empty of people, though there are traces of the bustle and commercial activity of Japantown. The street grid is often canted, the sky sliced by telephone wires. Rooflines, fishing boats, staircases, and bridge support beams are massed into diagonals; there's a calm yet slightly off-balance aspect here, the opposite of serene, horizontal nature scenes. It's the everyday world Tokita and Nomura lived in, not the world as they might've wanted it to be. Signage, appropriately, is often included in their frames—though not with the fine-brush precision used in their day job. BRIAN MILLER

Wednesdays, Saturdays, Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thursdays, Fridays, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Starts: Oct. 22. Continues through Feb. 19, 2011

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