Hitoshi Fugo: Kami @Miyako Yoshinaga

JTF (just the facts): A total of 10 black-and-white photographs, framed in black and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, made in 2001 or 2023 and printed in 2023. Nine of the prints are sized roughly 21×17 inches and are available in editions of 10+2AP; the remaining larger print is sized roughly 35×27 inches and is available in an edition of 5+1AP. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Artistic inspiration can come from any number of unexpected sources, and serendipity, chance, and the passing of time often play unlikely roles in turning a mundane passing moment into a robust aesthetic or conceptual idea. For the Japanese photographer Hitoshi Fugo, the roots of his current gallery show reach back more than thirty years, to a seemingly random occurrence in 1993. As he was out walking in the city, he passed by a printing factory that had recently been destroyed by fire; some cleaners were pulling charred stuff out of the building and he noticed several half-burnt rolls of paper that were lying on the ground. In a flash of inspiration, he asked the workers not to toss them out, and he later came back and took them to his studio.

There they sat for several years, until 2001, when Fugo eventually got around to making photographs of the large dense rolls. The intervening years included the devastating earthquake in Kobe in 1995, which Fugo had photographed, and so visual themes of violence and destruction were clearly percolating around in his head. As part of making the series, Fugo decided not only to document the rolls as they existed at that time, but also to continue the breakdown of the paper, via Gordon Matta-Clark-like chainsaw cuts that Fugo himself made to the scorched remnants. Fugo displayed the photographs only once in Japan in 2001, and then they were put away, unearthed again last year when Fugo artistically returned to the paper rolls one more time, to make several more images. This show mixes a selection of the original black-and-white photographs from 2001 with a few of the brand new ones, displaying the works for the first time here in the United States.

Given Fugo’s 2016 series of images of a cast iron frying pan (reviewed here), in which he seemed to find an entire cosmos of dark subtlety in an everyday object, perhaps the thought that some charred paper rolls could provide him an enduringly rich photographic subject isn’t altogether so unlikely. In the same way that Fugo expressively explored the patina of the pan’s surface, the blackness of its depths, and the nearly abstract curves of its edges, he applies a similar kind of intense observational thinking to the burnt paper rolls, reveling in the contrasts of light and dark (particularly in the juxtaposition of pristine and charred surfaces), the tactile complexity of the scorched edges and flaking sheets, and the thick density of the papers when seen on edge. In nearly every picture, there is a sense of the aftermath of violence, where Fugo is showing us the blackened ripples, hollows, cavities, and shreds of paper rolls that were once clean and crisp.

Aesthetically, Fugo’s strategy is mostly centered on getting in close, not so much via simple enlargement but more in the manner of tunneling into the intimacies of the paper. Many of his compositions present as essentially all-over abstractions, with lines, textures, and highlights observed precisely. Several works turn the paper rolls to the side, revealing dense layers of sheets that resemble wood grain or even rough rock faces. The images feel full of potential discoveries, as they traverse from side to side, following the curves and edges of the sheets. Abelardo Morell’s images of books damaged by water (made at about the same time as Fugo’s first images of paper rolls) have a similar aesthetic sense, where layers of paper are fanned out and twisted in unexpected ways.

Other photographs from the series feature the slashing zip-like cuts of the chainsaw, which create dark lines and sharp squared off edges amid the larger swirl of visual chaos. The largest image on view is vertically split down the middle, with the debris of burning scattered in the foreground and darkly dusted across the top of the folded sheets. And a few pictures leave the rolls largely untouched, the tube-like forms transformed from clean to destroyed, almost like the opening of a flower on a stem, or seemingly cut open, to reveal interior layers protected from the charring on the outside. Fugo’s prints are consistently engrossing and nuanced, encouraging us to delve into their mysteries.

With so many pages leafing by in these photographs, there is perhaps a hint of a parallel to the larger arc of Miyako Yoshinaga’s gallery; at the end of this show (and the end of her lease), she will take a pause to both reconsider her program and the space that she might need to house it. Over the years, I have reviewed many shows in Yoshinaga’s various galleries here in New York, and have always found her curatorial voice to be measured and thoughtful, particularly in introducing a range of vintage and contemporary Japanese photographers to the audience here in the city. Her consistent support of Fugo’s well made images is a testament to a specific kind of hard working passion, so hopefully we’ll see her pop up again sometime soon, perhaps in a new form.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at $3000 or $6500 each, based on size. Fugo’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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Mark Steinmetz, ATL

Mark Steinmetz, ATL

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by Nazraeli Press (here). Cloth hardback with tipped in cover photograph, 10.5 x 12 inches, 80 pages, with 63 duotone photographs. Includes an ... Read on.

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