Daido Moriyama, Within the Shadows @Bruce Silverstein

JTF (just the facts): A total of 40 black and white and 2 color photographs, generally framed in black and matted, and hung in the small single room gallery space, the entry area, and the office area. All of the black and white works are gelatin silver prints, made between 1968 and 2017, shown in a mix of vintage and later prints. Physical sizes range from roughly 8×10 to 17×23 inches (or reverse), and Moriyama does not edition his prints. The two color works are digital chromogenic prints mounted to aluminum, made between 2013 and 2017. The prints are each sized roughly 52×29 inches and are unedtioned. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: One of the byproducts of the process of an artist bouncing around between various gallery representation relationships is that the overall arc of his or her career can get muddled. While the artist is moving forward on his or her own trajectory, the galleries are forced to choose between jumping in at the present moment (with a show of the brand new work, whatever it is) or looking back and trying to more broadly introduce the artist’s work to their collector base, incrementally educating them over a series of shows. When the artist moves from gallery to gallery, the continuity of this explanatory voice gets lost, and the ability for the representative to build a coherent narrative around what the artist has done and is doing now can become difficult. For prolific artists, this is even more true, as the stories behind their work are often more complicated and layered.

The Japanese master photographer Daido Moriyama has had a handful of shows in New York in the past decade, at a variety of galleries, but the effect of his jumping around has left his artistic legacy somewhat confused, at least here in America. Thanks to a few museums (particularly SFMOMA) who championed Japanese photography before it was widely appreciated and understood, we can recognize many of his now iconic works from the 1960s and 1970s that helped define the are-bure-boke style of the postwar Provoke era, and we have seen intermittent updates on his recent work, in both black and white and color, but the connective glue that ties all that together has largely gone missing. No one gallery has had the consistent opportunity to tell Moriyama’s story end to end (aside from Taka Ishii Gallery in Tokyo), and so a patient explanation of what has gone on in his work over each successive decade (and why it is important) has never really taken place. Without the benefit of this critical evaluation and education, it just looks like Moriyama has continued to churn out work.

Bruce Silverstein is the latest gallery to take up Moriyama’s flag, and this first show attempts to skim the tops of the waves of his career, offering a survey-style approach to six decades of Moriyama’s photography. Leveraging some pockets of rare vintage material, it mixes a selection of key historical images with more recent crowd pleasers, thereby providing a baseline progression and summary introduction for those who need a refresher.

The vintage prints from the late 1960s and 1970s on view here are a strong reminder of Moriyama’s critical contributions to photography. Most settle into a dark, brooding mood that echoed the national psyche during that period, the stylistic use of grain, blur, and dark shadows heightening the tension and sense of unease. Moriyama’s images of a snarling stray dog, a glowing boy with crossed eyes, and the treads of massive truck tires indelibly capture this traumatized frame of mind, a grim savagery lying right near the surface. Other images from the period apply the same aesthetic to seductive images of women, from darkly languorous nude scenes in anonymous hotel rooms to the insistent desires of a sexy Bridget Bardot poster and a young woman hunted through a rubble-filled back alley.

The majority of the images in the show come from the 1980s, which seems to have been a period of transition for Moriyama. His voracious eye scanned the world around him with even more curiosity, and closer-in images and still lifes seem to have dominated his photographic vision. Dusty railroad ties and overhead bridges are seen with a sense of murky darkness similar to his earlier work, but other images (of the front of a motorcycle, a man’s hat, a flash lit door knob, and a pile of metal film reels) are photographed with much more attention to crispness and contrast. Moriyama’s interest in sensuality is also amplified and extended. He makes pictures of flowers, isolates women’s body parts (a textural tumble of hair in the street, a flash lit view of tight jeans, a dangling white high heel shoe, a surreal eye pulled open), and embarks on his first series of images of women in fishnet tights, where anonymous legs, bottoms, and feet are turned into provocative contour studies of curve and line.

In his photographs made since the 1990s, Moriyama seems more drawn to the cacophony of signage, advertising, store fronts, and other quirky distractions found on the streets of Tokyo. Repetitions, patterns, and reflections animate these compositions, and color becomes another tool he can use to exaggerate the garishness of his discoveries. Sultry lips and painted nails are seen again and again, the visual seductions becoming more overt and unapologetic.

Hopefully, with time and effort, Silverstein can more systematically unpack Moriyama’s many photographic and photobook projects, creating a tighter sense of order and evolution across the decades. This show successfully opens the door, reminding us of some of the durable reasons Moriyama’s work is worth exploring. With so much to process, there will clearly be possibilities and opportunities to delve into subject matter themes, stylistic changes over time, and more thorough studies of how Moriyama has leveraged bookmaking in his artistic practice. While Moriyama’s edge of luridness may be what sells best, a sustained push to clarify (and perhaps reposition) his legacy is likely what the artist needs most.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are generally priced between $4250 and $15000, with a handful at higher prices. Morimaya’s photographs are generally available at auction, with recent prices generally ranging between roughly $2000 and $70000.

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