From Student to Master: Tokuko Ushioda and Her Teachers @Alison Bradley Projects

JTF (just the facts): A total of 23 black-and-white photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space, the entry area, and the back office area.

The show includes prints and other materials by three photographers:

Tokuko Ushioda

  • 16 gelatin silver prints, c1970s, early 1980s, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1985, sized between roughly 7×7 and 7×10 inches (or the reverse)

Yasuhiro Ishimoto

  • 5 gelatin silver prints, 1953/after 1985, 1953/early 1980s, sized 11×14 inches (or the reverse)

Kiyoji Otsuji

  • 2 gelatin silver prints, 1953, 1950/1987, sized roughly 12×10, 9×6 inches

A selection of photobooks by the three photographers is on view in the office space, and other works, including a portfolio by Ushioda, can be viewed upon request.

Comments/Context: A photographer’s early work often marks a formative time when his or her own original voice starts to come into view. And as that perspective begins to strengthen and clarify, remnants of the aesthetic and conceptual influences of prior teachers and mentors get incorporated or ultimately left behind. As such, early works can often mark an important moment of aesthetic transition and experimentation, when a range of ideas are naturally intermingling and being tried out, with the artist’s more mature style eventually emerging out of this creative process of synthesis.

This small show brings together a selection of early works made by the Japanese photographer Tokuko Ushioda, which were recently rediscovered by the artist after some 40 years in obscurity. Ushioda is likely best known for her 1981 project “Reizoko/Ice Box”, which took form as a 1996 photobook; in it, she made straightforward side-by-side portraits of refrigerators in various Japanese homes, one image of the unit closed, the other with the doors open revealing everything inside. While seemingly innocuous, the images have more symbolic heft than we might expect, offering us resonant pathways into Japanese family life, the role of women, and the increasing encroachment of Western-style consumerism.

The vintage prints on view here come from essentially the same period (or perhaps a year or two before in some cases), when Ushioda and her husband (the photographer Shinzo Shimao) were married, had a daughter, and moved into a one-room apartment in Setagaya. (Ushioda’s work from this wider set of years has recently been published in a two-part photobook titled “My Husband”, and modern prints from the series have been made into a portfolio.) In the years prior, Ushioda had studied at the Kuwasawa Design School (with Yasuhiro Ishimoto and Kiyoji Otsuji), later assisted the two photographers, and went on to teach her own classes.

Curatorially, this show is set up as a compare and contrast exercise between Ushioda’s early works and a representative selection of prints by Ishimoto and Otsuji. In Ishimoto, we find a meticulous eye for pared down formalism, where architectural and garden details are honed into refined Modernist precision and elegance. In Otsuji, a more surreal impulse comes forward, with a female nude turned into a readymade doll; Otsuji is also widely known for his konpora ideas, where simple everyday objects were given clear deadpan attention (in contrast to the grainy blur of the are-bure-boke photographers.)

Ushioda’s early photographs incorporate some of these ideas, but then filter them through her own experience as a young wife and mother. Most of the photographs in this show were taken in her apartment, or from its windows, so there is a clear sense of intimate presence, of being inside the tight space that she and her young family are living in. She shows us the inside of the refrigerator, the stove top with its tea kettle and covered pot, and the crowded corner of the room where a dozen practical functions (including TV stand and hat rack) are taking place at once.

In such tight quarters, private personal space comes at a premium, and Ushioda offers us several versions of available concealment. A patterned curtain hangs from a high shelf perhaps hiding a closet or other storage area, its gridded pattern visually echoed in the ladder and calendar that flank it. An open umbrella on the floor offers another hiding place, as do towels that cover kids playing in the stairwell. And a view outside catches kids hanging out the open window of the apartment across the interior garden, the mixing of hard and soft textures accented by the sense of watching and being watched.

Ishimoto’s sharp formalism finds its way into a number of Ushioda’s compositions, not so much as a primary style, but as a clarifying force that she then softens to fit within the constraints of her environment. A view out the window, with the black bars of the window frame carving up the space like an unbalanced Mondrian painting, is perhaps the closest in terms of obvious aesthetic parallels to Ishimoto. But other interior scenes – her daughter in a high chair, a film camera sitting on a wooden chair, and a seating arrangement with a circular coffee table – all bear some faint echo of Ishimoto’s aesthetic thinking, either in the crispness of the formal elements or the extreme contrast of the lights and darks.

Otsuji’s influence in felt in other pictures, some with a surreal undercurrent, others more simply seen slices of the everyday. The pairing of a bunny mask with a Hello Kitty apron, both hanging on a stack of drawers, creates a strange two-headed figure that stares out at us with a blank look, with the cassette player turned on its side on the nearby counter providing one more set of imaginary eyes. Another image uses deadpan attention to make the straightforward seem exceptional, giving a heaping pile of clothes and bedding a sense of taking over the small room.

But no artist is entirely the sum of his or her influences, and Ushioda’s photographs signal learnings being internalized and applied, but then reimagined for new situations and artistic problems. Her pictures are comfortable, but also surprisingly insightful, in that they both map the space her life and highlight some of its less visible pressure points. In some sense, the pictures bounce around the single room, always coming back to the day to day domestic routines of being a new mother, that take her from the stove to the fridge to the highchair and on to the mountainous laundry pile, only to be momentarily distracted by the view out the window or the unexpectedly beautiful shadows that are cast by a piece of furniture. Her observations have not yet turned to a more caustic view of her existence, but we can see her mind turning over the relatively fixed realities that surround her.

That Ushioda would then turn a look into her refrigerator into a compelling photographic study is a testament to her ability to see the broader implications of something so seemingly mundane. In these early pictures, she was indeed sifting her influences, but it’s also clear that she was busy searching for (and finding) her own unique path forward.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced as follows. The early works by Ushioda are $7500 each, while the supporting works by Ishimoto are $8000, $10000, and $13000 and those by Otsuji are $7500 and $35000. Ushioda’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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Read more about: Kiyoji Otsuji, Tokuko Ushioda, Yasuhiro Ishimoto, Alison Bradley Projects

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