Kunié Sugiura, Photographic Collages 1977-1981 @Leslie Tonkonow

JTF (just the facts): A total of 18 photographic works, framed in white wood, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the entry hallway. All of the works are  type c-prints or gelatin silver prints mounted on etching paper, some with additional acrylic paint, made between 1977 and 1981. There are 15 single sheet works, 1 diptych, and 2 triptychs on view, where each sheet is sized 30×22; all of the works are unique. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: At a time when photographic collage (both the digital and the archival) is having a newfound Renaissance, it seems like a good opportunity to revisit some of the lessons to be discovered in Japanese photographer Kunié Sugiura’s collage works from several decades ago. This show brings together a selection of the artist’s photographic collages from the late 1970s and early 1980s, each a careful pairing of a small, unassuming photograph with an equal sized block of monochrome color, placed edge to edge like an echo or a partner, mounted against a much larger piece of white paper. The effect is something like an intimate dialogue between content and flat color, where visual balance is tested with iterative rigor.

On their own, Sugiura’s photographs are relatively mundane and forgettable: railroad tracks, tree filled landscapes, city buildings, apartment windows, a glass of water on a window sill, some nasturtiums creeping through a picket fence. What is intriguing is how she has placed them in space on the page, and how they interact with different neighbors. Her monochrome blocks run the spectrum from nearly white to deep black (all made of exposed but imageless photographic paper), with a few bright interludes in yellow, orange, pink, and blue (some hand painted). Her first set of studies play with the spatial relationship between the image and the block, testing above and alternate side locations in different hues. The pairings explore a combination of knowing and not knowing, of representation and abstraction, and the subtle rhythms and downstream assumptions of ordering.

In other works, she adds specific color choice to the mix. In some collages, the colors match, like the pair of oil drums with gestural vertical swaths of yellow and blue. In others, the colors are chosen for contrast, like the yellow block with the image of a red standpipe, or the orange block adjacent to the picture of a brick wall painted pink and black. And in the diptychs and triptychs, Sugiura offers a changing set of options, like the same image of train tracks alternately paired with near white, pink, and black. Each piece feels like a solution to a spatial puzzle, where the influences of Minimalism and Josef Albers help chart a calm, visually balanced outcome.

These collages have a meditative quality to them that underlies their apparent simplicity. There is a sense of the artist using a methodical process to search for complex answers, of exercises done until the optimum configuration is uncovered. In these works, Sugiura is testing the limits of the photograph as object, figuring out how an image would react in different settings. As such, her thinking is remarkably contemporary, making these modest collages surprisingly relevant to today’s concerns.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The single sheet collages are $8500 each, the diptych is $14000, and the triptychs are $18000 each. Sugiura’s work has very little secondary market history in the past decade, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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Read more about: Kunié Sugiura, Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects

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