Press / Riverside Museum of Art
Kendall H. Brown
Associate Professor of Asian Art History
Art Department, California State University, Long Beach
The Art of Moira Hahn
text for a brochure published in conjunction with my solo show at Riverside Museum of Art, Riverside CA, March-May 2007
In the 1960s Japanese artists like Ushio Shinohara, Ay-O and Yokoo Tadanori began to deploy the motifs and mood of 18th and 19th century ukiyo-e, “pictures of the floating world” of merchant culture. Japanese élites had long scorned ukiyo-e prints as a plebian art-mass produced, calibrated to popular taste, and frequently outlandish in subject. It was precisely this vitality, however, that appealed to young artists tired of the prevailing stereotypes of Japanese art as spiritual and either delicately aristocratic or boldly austere. Building upon this new movement, artists in the West also began to adapt ukiyo-e styles and subjects. For the Japanese emigré Masami Teraoka and Japanese Americans Roger Shimomura then Gajin Fujita, by appropriating pre-modern Japanese prints they could effectively signal their ethnic heritage, suggest the mutability of cultures and, utilizing the subversive nature of much ukiyo-e, critique orthodox social values.
The art of Moira Hahn occupies a unique place in the modern transformation of ukiyo-e. Formally, while most of her contemporaries radically adapt the media, scale and format of ukiyo-e, Hahn's work is strikingly close to the feel of late ukiyo-e prints. With her crisp lines, bold colors, precise patterns and dense yet spatially logical compositions (not to mention her use of cartouches with Japanese titles), Hahn evokes the vibrant visual realms of the ukiyo-e masters Kunisada (1786-1865) and Kuniyoshi (1794-1834). Hahn's combination of elegance with intensity also recalls visual traditions as different as Persian miniatures, Tibetan thankas and mid-20th century American and Japanese cartoons. Anime figures including Doraemon and Atom Boy from the second tradition appear in some of her work. Thematically, by replacing human figures with animals, Hahn downplays or reframes issues of identity and social criticism. Although animals have been used in Japanese art to mock the human realm since the Frolicking Animals scroll of the 12th century, Hahn's cats, birds and other beasts do not engage in activities suggesting satire. Instead, even while presented as Japanese warriors, aristocrats or the bird-like demons called tengu, they engage in biologically impelled interspecies combat.
Moira Hahn's most frequent images transpose the real battles of the birds and feral cats from her backyard into the stylized world of early 19th century ukiyo-e. By connecting natural animal dramas with the high theatricality of prints derived from kabuki theater, Hahn's art creates a distinctively hybrid cultural space. In this fantastic realm, Hahn balances the natural and the artificial, the foreign and the familiar, the sacred and the profane, even the tragic and the comedic. The most central aspect of Hahn's dialectic is a dynamic balance between the physical drama explicit in her subjects and the powerful abstraction of her pictorial surfaces. Hahn's art is seductive because the force of her imagination is matched by the strength of her technical skill. More importantly, Hahn's fantasy worlds are compelling in the completeness of her vision. Cats don't wield samurai swords, but looking at Hahn' art we not only believe that they could, we feel that they should. The beaks of those demon birds are that sharp