Kikuji Kawada: The Last Cosmology @L. Parker Stephenson

JTF (just the facts): A total of 17 black and white photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the smaller viewing room. All of the works are gelatin silver prints (mostly vintage), made between 1969 and 1999. Physical sizes range from roughly 13×9 to 22×15, and no edition information was provided. A monograph of this body of work was initially published by 491 in 1995 (image below) and is being redesigned/reissued by MACK Books in 2015 (here). (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Kikuji Kawada’s The Last Cosmology is a compelling metaphysical journey, a curious look skyward with camera in hand in search of answers about the larger world around us. Part amateur astronomy/meteorology, part inward looking philosophy, and part scientific photography, the dark, shadowy images catch glimpses of everyday wonders and once-in-a-lifetime phenomena, visually reaching across skies and heavens to grasp at their elusive messages. Kawada’s thirty year photographic project is at once intensely personal and broadly expansive, tying fleeting comets and eclipses to elementary forces more profoundly unknowable.

While scientific photographs of moons and stars are usually presented with an emphasis on technical precision and objective reality, Kawada’s cosmos is a moody, uncertain place, where black suns radiate fire, invisible winds pull wisps off of blindingly bright orbs, and multiple exposure crescent moons stutter across the sky like Morse code. Long exposure rotations turn stars into linear arcs and the moon mysteriously follows an exacting geometric trail, as if tracing hidden mathematical codes. While normal images of the passing of Hale Bopp or the last eclipse of Venus might feel like enthusiast check offs, Kawada’s pictures of these astronomical events feel engagingly open ended, as if these moments were trying to communicate something of deeper significance that we’re not entirely recognizing.

Closer to home, Kawada’s images of the skies take Stieglitz’ Equivalents into a decidedly darker and grittier realm. Fierce suns burn through menacing black clouds, silhouetting tiny blimps and helicopters like insects hovering overhead. Blackbirds launch skyward with ominous foreboding, settling down on a rooftop antenna to silently observe. Lightning slashes through the sky, the sun gives off a hazy halo, and scenes from a nighttime greenhouse, a submerged water control station, and a whirling Polynesian fish pond suddenly seem to whisper the secrets of the universe.

Thankfully Kawada’s mysticism doesn’t feel precious or mannered, like some easily dismissed pap being passed off as discovered wisdom. Instead his pictures smolder on the walls, seething with a black richness that seems to accept the natural unknowns he is trying to document. With all their found grandeur, the photographs still seem to stand before us with humility, offering us hard earned pieces of a puzzle that the artist has yet to complete, but which is revealing itself in slow increments. Seen together, Kawada’s pictures are like a life long investigation, where patient looking has provided the path to seeing the larger patterns.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced between $8000 and $22000. A concurrent show of the same body of work is now on view at Michael Hoppen Gallery in London (here). Since this is Kawada’s first solo exhibit in the US, aside from the trading of his photobooks, there is little secondary market history for his work. As such, gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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