Kensuke Koike, Dear Friend… @Postmasters

JTF (just the facts): A total of 26 photographic works (7 of which are shown as videos), displayed against white walls, either unframed, behind Plexiglas, or on small white shelves, in the front gallery space. All of the works are vintage photographs or postcards, variously cut, woven, scratched, and otherwise altered, a few with additional metal wire, pins, and plastic as support, made between 2015 and 2018. Physical sizes range from roughly 4×3 to 11×8 inches (or the reverse), and all of the works are unique. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: In the past two decades, as the main body of the photographic art world has inexorably moved toward the digital realm, a small group of holdouts have turned away from that seemingly inescapable flow, instead focusing their attention on archival and vernacular imagery in its resolutely physical forms. These artists don’t necessarily make photographs with cameras themselves, but have used various kinds of found imagery as the starting points for their own artistic journeys, which have often involved manipulation, alteration, and recontextualization of these prints in one way or another.

The concept that a photograph is both an image and object (at the same time) is a well explored duality. Physical intervention in photography goes all the way back to the first overpainted daguerreotypes in the mid 19th century, and the cutting and pasting of photographic prints into collages came soon afterward. In more contemporary times, John Stezaker has cemented his place as a master of incisive photographic reconsideration and juxtaposition, and a whole host of recent newcomers, from Julie Cockburn to Alma Hauser (to name just two), have introduced an overflowing tool box of alternative intervention techniques, including sewing and embroidery, rough tearing and crumpling, intricate weaving and layering, sculptural origami-like folding, and original styles of overpainting and mark making.

In most cases, these contemporary interventionists take one unexpected technique and make an entire body of work using that one method, and then move on to a variation on or evolution of that technique, which spawns yet another whole body of work. In essence, it’s a top down artistic strategy, taking an aesthetic idea and applying it similarly across a range of found images.

Kensuke Koike’s approach to the physical manipulation of photographs is just the opposite. He works bottom up, starting with the image itself and the particular inspiration that it provides. Each of his works is not only unique, but also a careful and deliberate reaction to the subject matter before him. It’s as if each found photograph or postcard he comes across has its own perfect intervention waiting to be unlocked, and Koike is just the artist to discover it.

One of the intriguing limits Koike places upon his process is that he forces himself to operate inside a closed artistic system. What this means is that when he makes his cuts or tears or wholesale rearrangements, he neither adds nor removes anything (in a few cases, aside from a small piece of support structure) – so while he may meaningfully disrupt the original image, all the pieces are still there in his final creation.

These rigid boundaries force Koike to be extremely precise, as any stray cut or tear effectively ruins his one chance at reinterpreting that found object. As a result, his works balance an active and engaged sense of physical performance, which might seem improvisational, with a controlled use of meticulous pre-visualization, which is of course minutely planned.

The works on view in this exhibit are both two and three dimensional, showing the range of ideas Koike has employed in disrupting these images. The gallery has also smartly installed an array of video screens that show Koike making or manipulating various works (two of which are on view as physical objects elsewhere in the show), so we can see both the process and the product in one short engagement.

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes is a perfect example of Koike’s magic. In a video, we see him take a postcard image of a woman in a jaunty hat holding a cigarette and begin to tear it from the left side edge. Slowly and deliberately he progresses in his tearing, turning and bending the paper, continuing inward until he reaches the point of the cigarette, where he then pushes the sides of the tear back together, allowing the white edges to overlap. When he finishes and presents the final work, the rip is transformed into a delicate wisp of smoke, the simple elegance of his gesture transformed into a quiet bit of astonishing intelligence.

Other two dimensional works turn on similar flashes of cleverness. Images are cut into tiny blocks like pixels and subtly rearranged. Bodies and legs are inverted, heads are exchanged, horizon and sky reverse positions, and a horse’s leg turns into an elephant’s nose. And in Triangle, Koike makes just a few incisions to encourage a rectangular postcard to twist and rotate into a perfect triangle – watching the swirling transition is proof that Koike is a master of spatial geometries.

In three dimensions, the compositions and interventions get even more complex. Orbit turns an ordinary headshot of a boy into an intricate arrangement of concentric circles like a solar system model. Paparazzi in Naples encourages a bronze statue to ruffle and blow in the wind. Many works pull parts of the imagery up into a vertical position, creating interplays of ups and downs. Peeping Tom telescopes in on the face of boy, while Man Ray/Isles cuts parts of a portrait away, which are then laid down on the white shelf below like an archipelago of islands. Koike’s considered craftsmanship is on display in each and every one of these works, without ever becoming too predictable.

What’s particularly new here is that Koike seems to be thinking about a static photograph as an unexpected venue for physical activation. His interventions are largely about creating movement or rearrangement, forcing us to see the underlying image in an entirely new way. These works are small and intimate, requiring up close attention, but if we allow ourselves to be drawn into Koike’s tightly controlled (and sometimes surreal) world, it’s like we’ve entered an alternate Alice in Wonderland universe where the paper photographs suddenly take on a life of their own.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced between $2500 and $3500. Koike’s works have little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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