JTF (just the facts): A total of 15 color works, framed in dark brown wood and matted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space, the smaller back viewing room, and the entry area. All of the works are c-prints, made between 1966 and 1967. Image sizes range from roughly 7×8 to 11×13 (or reverse) and all of the prints are unique. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: The Japanese photographer Kunié Sugiura has been testing the aesthetic limits of the photographic medium for more than five decades. Her work has consistently combined refined simplicity with an interest in the possibilities of the photographic process, and over the years, she has spent time exploring various modes of hand-crafted image making, from elemental photograms to sophisticated works that have brought painting and printmaking into the visual conversation.
This show takes us back to the very beginning of her artistic career, to her mid-1960s undergraduate years at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (where she studied with Ken Josephson), and provides a window into her thinking as she was getting started on her long artistic journey. In these formative yeas, Sugiura was feeling a sense of alienation, spending her time reading Camus and Kafka and living the life of an isolated foreigner far from home. And so her pictures from this early period find her experimenting with unconventional ways to use photography to convey the tumult of her interior emotions.
While it doesn’t make sense to read too much long term meaning into the works she made as student, Sugiura’s images from Chicago absolutely take risks in the search for new modes of personal expression. Employing a fisheye lens, she made rounded nudes (in washed out colors) twisted by Bill Brandt-like distortions, the normal human proportions of legs, arms, shoulders, and torsos elongated and bent into bulbous, nearly unrecognizable forms. Using both male and female models, she perched bodies on hard tabletops and in empty rooms, turning them into sinuous deformed echoes of estrangement and disaffection.
But Sugiura wasn’t content to leave her experiments there, and most of the works in the show transform the fisheye nudes into raw material for more elaborate darkroom improvisations. Checkerboards and brick walls provide a backdrop of repeated patterns, and by combining multiple negatives (in both black and white and color), Sugiura is able to alternately fill in opposing squares with imagery or dot small figures across the angled arrays. Her colors wander from acidic yellow, to burnt orange, to electric purple, and her added solarizations and negative inversions create further layers of antagonistic distortion. In one image, she’s even added slashes of angry bleach, surrounding a contact sheet of nudes with gestural movement.
It would have been easy for Sugiura to drift into a kind of howling Surrealism here, but she instead settles into a mood that balances cool disaffection with rawer visual representation. Her nudes of both sexes are at once seductively graceful and deliberately awkward, the repetitions and layerings of imagery multiplying out, creating the sense of discrete moments aggregated into a more three dimensional perspective. She trades the formal simplicity of the initial nudes for something more frenetic, one body giving way to a cascade of many.
For student work, many of Sugiura’s images from the mid-1960s are remarkably complex and sophisticated. They’ve given the traditional nude form an aspect of unsettled disquiet, finding a deeper sense of rich reality in the exaggerations and amplifications of deliberately mannered distortion.
Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced between $9000 and $14000, with one work NFS. 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.