Kunié Sugiura, Chance and Fate: Photographic Sculptures and Installations @Leslie Tonkonow

JTF (just the facts): A total of 13 photographic works, variously framed/mounted/displayed against white walls in the main gallery space and the entry hallway. The works are made up of gelatin silver prints (some toned) or c-prints, pinned directly to the wall, mounted on aluminum/Plexiglas, or hung in racks, one with an additional tank of blue water, another with a single thread. Individual print sizes range from roughly 5×7 to 40×30, with the works made up of sets ranging in size from 2 prints to 128 prints. All of the works are unique, and were made between 1992 and 2005. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Kunié Sugiura’s subtle photograms from the 1990s deserve to be better known. Leveraging the camera-less process pioneered by Fox Talbot, Atkins, and others at the very dawn of the medium, she has extended the form beyond the intimate single frame objects, Bauhaus geometries, and surreal gatherings it is best known for, pushing it into the realm of the more overtly conceptual. The works on view here are tangible evidence of an inventive and experimental artistic mind – embracing chance, exploring multi-image constructions and multi-unit series, deconstructing and reusing common x-rays, and allowing her imagery to extend into sculptural space, all in the search for new modes of photographic expression.

Two works use the unpredictability of animal behavior as their chosen method for generating unplanned painterly gestures. For seven consecutive nights, ghostly kittens crawled across her studio floor, creating a playful series of white forms, scratches, tumbles, water spills, and pee stains called The Kitten Papers (1992); each night is a venue for new chemical twists and whimsical compositional elements. Namu (1994) uses the silhouette of a koi fish (complete with bulbous body and long whiskers) as its protagonist, with swirling splashes and drips of blue and black providing a fluid backdrop; a nearby tank of water alludes to her ingenious process, with light cast through the water to paper on the other side of the tank, capturing both the fish and the undulations in one exposure. Like the chance moves of Merce Cunningham dancers, the motions of Sugiura’s animals feel freshly open and buoyant, both carefully engineered and uncontrolled.

Sugiura’s employment of shadowy x-rays in another collection of works interrogates rigorous order from a separate angle. Black and white scans of spines, brains, and lungs would normally draw us into their information-rich scientific detail, but Sugiura has cut them up into equal sized 5×7 tiles and arranged them in metal postcard racks, the images fragmented into puzzle pieces that we can’t quite reassemble. This confusion pulls the x-rays back into the realm of elemental form, where the sinuous curve of a spine traverses an entire vertical row of rack spaces like a chopped up snake. Seen from a variety of angles, the two dimensional source images now look out in four separate directions, their story relayered again and again in a kind of circular movement around the central core – in this case, she’s forced us to stalk the artworks from multiple vantage points, the fragments merging into a disorienting jumble.

In Premonitions by Roses (1997), Sugiura turns the simple duality of a rose and its stem into a kind of visual Morse code – it’s the most striking and conceptually complex work on view. In each of 64 separate panels, she’s arrayed six roses or stems; for the mathematically inclined, she’s documented every combination of rose/stem in six different slots, for a total of 64 (2^6) possible outcomes. These photograms were then effectively doubled (from negative to positive), creating another set of 64 prints in the reversed tonality. Then using the I-Ching to select the exact order/arrangement of the prints, she’s hung them in a dense rectangle surrounded by a perfect circle. As an installation, it’s sublimely elegant, with a purity of pared down execution that is quietly hypnotic and meditative; simply put, it belongs in a museum collection.

More broadly, Sugiura’s 1990s photograms feel positively brainy and cerebral compared with the looser, more improvisational work of more recent photogram devotees. Each project on view here seems executed with thoughtful deliberation and tight precision, even when serendipity is consciously introduced into the equation. She was systematically testing the boundaries of formal order in these artworks, merging risk taking with subdued grace. From serial degradations and unpremeditated actions to exacting randomness and reorganized fragmentation, it’s an impressively consistent and richly intelligent body of work.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show range in price from $12000 to $115000, with many intermediate prices under $50000. Sugiura’s work has had very little secondary market activity in the past decade, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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