Tenjin Ikeda draws on the power of symbols in Maplewood show

by TRIS McCALL

“My Cosmology,” by Tenjin Ikeda.

It is unlikely that your kitchen still has a linoleum floor. You are probably not eating off of linoleum trays and countertops anymore. The former product of tomorrow has mostly been forgotten today.

Unless you are a printmaker.

Linoleum continues to be a material of choice among those who press ink to paper. Its malleability and softness give it advantages over the wooden blocks that have been stained by printers since antiquity. A skilled printmaker can swiftly work an astonishing amount of detail into a linoleum block: textures, shading, designs, sigils, symbols.

Tenjin Ikeda is such a talented printmaker that I am hesitant to ascribe any of the power of his work to the tools he uses. Yet he thinks enough of his favorite material to name his generous and imaginative show after it. “Expressive Impressions in Linoleum,” which will be up at the 1978 Maplewood Arts Center until the end of Black History Month, feels like a linocut showcase, and a demonstration of how much he finds buried within those blocks of oil, cork and resin. Swirls, waves and lines in human skin, the grain of wooden planks, the veins of leaves, the filaments of spiderwebs and other phenomena are all captured with the smoothness and high-contrast clarity that characterizes first-rate linocut printing.

His pieces are also dense with symbols. Some of these are ideograms from the common lexicon of pictographs. Others feel much older — evocative of ancient writing systems, African and otherwise.

Tenjin Ikeda’s “Reservoir of Expression.”

In “Reservoir of Expression,” a human heart, complete with deep ventricles and ribbed arteries, is stuffed with things of symbolic significance: dragonflies, tortoises, drums, fish heads, dancing human stick figures. The spider and the seashell, both motifs in Ikeda’s prints, make a showing on the organ’s surface, as does the masked shaman, bedecked in clothing bearing still more symbols, who appears to burst from the bottom of the heart. In the middle is a man, perhaps the heart’s possessor, invigorated by the activity around him. He is smiling. He may be striding toward us.

The seashells and the shaman — and the confidence — return in “My Cosmology” (see above), a gorgeous black-and-white print that, despite its strangeness, feels like a self-portrait. A human figure wears a veil of tiny shells over his head, and wears a row of pictographs that include, among other things, leaves, hunting birds, starbursts, mazes of zig-zags, and a pair of mirrored hemispheres that hint of the birth of space. A shape like an angled speech bubble in a cartoon contains a thoughtful human face that resembles the artist’s own.

Through the power of symbols and an open line to the cosmos, is Ikeda summoning himself into being? Is the precision afforded by linoleum printmaking a metaphor for the command the artist has over the construction of his own identity?

“Expressive Impressions in Linoleum” is an example of a deep interest in symbol and signification present in many of the strong shows mounted in New Jersey for Black History Month 2024. Nette Forné Thomas, the curator of this exhibition, incorporated imagery both national and mythological in her recent show at Akwaaba Gallery in Newark. Ikeda has also contributed to “Contemporary African Spirituality in Art,” a group show at the Walsh Gallery at Seton Hall University bathed in transcultural religious symbolism. The same might be said of “The Universe of Ben Jones,” a blowout retrospective at New Jersey City University dedicated to the work of the influential painter and printmaker, who often represented the sigil of the Yoruba deity Shango. The Afrofuturist exhibit at the Paper Mill Playhouse locates its subjects somewhere out of time, existing simultaneously in an imagined future and a mystical past.

These are all very different shows. But these artists reserve for their African and African American subjects a transcendent quality. They depict characters in touch with something eternal, and thus impossible to quantify in the limited language we’ve got. Though turmoil is all around them, they are at peace with their place in the multiverse. The artists’ pieces promise something similar to the viewer willing to expand her consciousness and open her mind to a higher understanding. The possessors of symbolic literacy are attuned both to cosmic forces and the poetry of natural life; they are guided by the stars and the tides, and, somehow, immune to corrosive terrestrial forces.

Tenjin Ikeda’s “The Secrets of Medicine.”

In Ikeda’s haunting “The Secrets of Medicine,” herbs and fronds surround a small wooden house with no obvious means of egress. A man stares plaintively from a window; the linocut process permits the use of different colors, and the streak of red that touches his shoulder amplifies the feeling of unease. Another man on the outside of the house has taken the leaf into his heart, and he stands tall on legs fortified by symbols and feet as gnarled as roots.

This is an inspirational piece, but it’s also a critique. Ikeda takes aim at all of those in the sealed edifice of mainstream science — those who have tuned out the voice of the planet.

If you are a mainstream scientist yourself, you may roll your eyes a little. Then again, you may find the spirit of inquiry and close observation of natural phenomena in “Secrets of Medicine” commendable, and accept the artist as a kindred spirit walking a parallel path. As “Expressive Impressions in Linoleum” demonstrates, Ikeda is as devoted to the power of language and representation as any scholar. He just believes in a secret alphabet that supplements the one we’re used to — one filled with signs and symbols drawn from the cultural unconscious and resonant with African history, which is, as we know, the world’s history.

Tenjin Ikeda’s “The Arc of Transformation.”

His favorites are all there in “The Arc of Transformation,” a black-and-white web of associations that feels like a summary statement for the whole show. Big seashells and bigger spiders, open flowers and upturned palms, birds’ heads and single, central eyes, protective circles, lightning flashes and amoeboid shapes that suggest primeval life are all caught up in a loose lattice of black lines. On the right side of the print, a woman casts a serene gaze at us.

She may have absorbed the wisdom inscribed in the symbols around her, those sigils carved into a linoleum block and pressed on a blank surface. Or maybe her journey is just beginning.

Tenjin Ikeda’s “Expressive Impressions in Linoleum” can be seen at 1978 Maplewood Arts Center through Feb. 25; visit maplewoodartsandculture.org.

For more on Ikeda, visit tenjin-ikeda.com.

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