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Island icon Takao Tanabe subject of exhibit at Madrona Gallery

Retrospectives of Takao Tanabe’s work are always popular in part because of the rarity of his material on display, Madrona Gallery owner Michael Warren said.
Gogit Passage, QCI (1988) by TakaoTanabe. MADRONA GALLERY


Where: Madrona Gallery, 606 View St.
When: May 18-June 1

Madrona Gallery has exhibited its share of locally-themed works over the years, including estimable ones from Emily Carr and E.J. Hughes.

But when it comes to artists whose output have sustained for half a century, while drawing the attention of connoisseurs and passersby alike, there’s a very short list of peers who can compete with 97 year-old Takao Tanabe.

“He’s able to communicate the real essential elements of the experience of being on the coast,” Madrona Gallery owner and director Michael Warren said of Tanabe, who currently lives in Errington near Parksville.

“He’s so concise. When you look at the composition, a lot of times there’s not that much there. But it holds you, and makes you stop and pause for a moment. Through that stillness, it allows for you to have a moment of reflection or contemplation — and that is something every human longs for. His images provide that experience for people.”

Warren has assembled a collection of the artist’s work from the secondary market for Takao Tanabe: Printmaker, which opens May 18. The exhibit features a selection of handmade original woodblock and lithographs completed between 1980 and 2009, including prints of one his most popular paintings, Raza, Early Evening.

Retrospectives of Tanabe’s work are always popular, Warren said, in part because of the rarity of his material on display. Warren timed Madrona Gallery’s exhibit to parallel the similarly-themed Tanabe exhibit at the Surrey Art Gallery that opened April 13. The Kelowna Art Gallery exhibited the same show in 2023, to great success.

“As a commercial art gallery, it’s really opportune to piggyback on that, because there is a sense of awareness. A lot of times, people go to museums and say, ‘I love this, I wish I could have it,’ but museums aren’t in the business of selling things. Since we are, we can help promote Tanabe’s work.”

Prints for sale in Printmaker are priced between $3,500 and $15,000, with prices for his original woodblocks hitting a “substantially higher” pricepoint, according to Warren. Printmaker features primarily limited editions, and though multiples of each exist, the bulk of those are in the permanent collections of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, the Ottawa’s National Gallery of Canada, and the Vancouver Art Gallery.

Few of these prints, if any, ever come up for sale, Warren said. “With Tanabe, people tend to really hold onto [his work], so there’s not a lot of turnover in the market. That limits the supply. Parts of these editions have gone into institutions and will never be turned over.”

Born in 1926, near Prince Rupert, Tanabe studied under Joe Plaskett at the Winnipeg School of Art, graduating as a star student in 1949. He took classes at the Brooklyn Museum Art School in 1951, before returning to B.C. that same year. His first work in a professional capacity was a mural for the University of British Columbia Art Gallery in 1953, which set in motion a seven-decade run of success. He has lived on Vancouver Island since 1980, preferring relative seclusion to the exposure that likely would have come from living in a bigger city.

Warren briefly met Tanabe in March, at the Vancouver Art Gallery’s launch of Ian Thom’s biography on Tanabe, but the artist has consistently kept a low profile in recent years. He is no longer producing new work, but continues to receive recognition for his complexity and nuance as an artist, receiving the Order of British Columbia, the Order of Canada and the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts.

In 2021, Warren assembled at Madrona Gallery the exhibit, Takao Tanabe: Seven Decades of Painting, for which he sourced privately-owned works from around the country. His affinity for Tanabe’s work dates back much further, however, to when Warren was at the University of Victoria, during the early 2000s. Tanabe has been a constant presence in his life, and Warren has invested a lot of time and money into sourcing work for these collections.

“Tanabe is in a unique position,” Warren said. “For a lot of his career, he had a lot of critical success, but not necessarily commercial success. He’s always been a premiere artist, in terms of Canada, since the 1950s. But the market for art at that time, was pretty small. At this stage, a very, very late stage of his career, he has accumulated a huge amount of accolades. Through a lifetime of diligent work, and being innovative as an artist, and generous as a teacher, he has built up a sense of awareness.

“People are comfortable with the significance of his work, so those who may not have paid as much attention to Tanabe’s voice in the arts, especially on a national level, are realizing he innovated an entire aesthetic and was constantly trying new ideas. Now, I think he’s getting his due. And the market, from what I see as an art dealer, is only growing. This is just the start, in terms of appreciation from collectors.”

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