There is a restlessness to the works by New York-based Japanese artist Kikuo Saito, on display now at Octavia Art Gallery, Houston. Throughout the past 30 years, this abstract expressionist has experimented with a variety of techniques including bold abstracts with wide brush strokes and unpainted areas, jumbled snail trails of saturated color that take over the canvas, partially obscured Roman letters arranged on a grid, oil and crayon on paper and a sparse abstraction of what could be stage pieces.
Of the 17 works at the gallery (11 on display), it is interesting to note that the oldest, 1981's Golden Shadow, and the most recent, 2015's Summer Arrow, each incorporate simple compositions and unfinished canvases.
In both, the artist is unafraid to use surprising color combinations, but the earlier work is more confident and uses broader strokes. In the piece done this year, Saito seems to work and rework the canvas, trying to recapture an earlier time and place. The latter takes on different characteristics, however, when standing away from the piece - it is only then when the true structure of the arrow comes in to focus.
Saito and his late wife, dancer and choreographer Eva Maier, were once a power couple in New York, working together on projects such as 1996's Toy Garden (performance art painting) and The Wrist Brakes (dance) in Greenwich Village. Early in Saito's career, he created décor and costumes for the theater, sometimes collaborating with Jerome Robbins, Peter Brook and Robert Wilson. This is most likely the inspiration for Persian Hat, with the framework for a variety of objects against an arctic background. It's a fun piece, as the figures can be interpreted as set designs, animals, insects or architectural elements.
As Houston is the second stop for this dual-city exhibit, some of the Roman letter works are no longer available, including Orange Sand and Orange Diver. When visiting Octavia, ask to see Pink Coin, as there is a Zen beauty to these orderly compositions inspired by the artist's 1966 move to New York and the confusion of being immersed in a foreign language.
In the olive-toned Spanish Chair II, the letters have begun to be overtaken by splotches of color, whereas the color completely dominates in the verdant green Tree Map and the candy-colored explosion of Spider's Hat.
There are five smaller works of oil and crayon on paper. In most of them the artist has taken a page out of a magazine and, as if declaring the subject matter insufficient, has blotted out the words and images with crayon, underscored by the ghost stain of oil. In #193 Saito has obliterated a red beaded necklace, as well as the means to purchase the jewelry, with a tornado-like whirl of saturated color. In #141, an essay about landscaping, Saito has all but obscured the article, finishing off the piece with a red cage and his trademark thumbprint.
Kikuo Saito continues through May 7, at Octavia Art Gallery, Houston, 3637 West Alabama, open Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., 713-877-1810, octaviaartgallery.com.