by Hrag Vartanian
Colors of Shadow
October 28–December 9, 2006
Hiroshi Sugimoto’s seems at the brink of a brave new world in his latest exhibition, Colors of Shadow, which is also his first foray into color photography—though looking at these virtually monochromic images you’d hardly know it. What he presents in this show shoots straight to the origins of art and hints at a new direction for the artist.
His seventeen photographs in four rooms at Sonnabend are studies of light and shadow on the stucco walls of his hilltop Tokyo penthouse. Known for his extraordinary ability to transform any subject he chooses—a seascape, theater or modernist architecture—into a visual feast, Sugimoto latest art works are his most minimal (though no one could argue his seascapes were maximal), while their perspective on light is both astute and wondrous. The economy of Colors of Shadow makes us scrutinize every detail.
The series suggests a return to basics: Sugimoto photographs walls much like Edward Weston used peppers or Mapplethorpe capitalized on calla lilies. As in the work of these older masters, there is an elemental aspect to Colors that shows off Sugimoto’s technical ability but also coaxes us to look again and again.
The artist commissioned his penthouse walls to be surfaced with a traditional Japanese plaster finishing technique called shikkui, which “absorbs and reflects light most evenly,” according to his artist’s statement, and to be built at three distinct angles: 90, 55 and 35 degrees. Why he chose these three angles is unclear, but the resulting compositions attest to the astuteness of his choices.
Sugimoto seems to focus his lens on a point in space a few inches in front of the furthest wall in the composition. The effect is to soften the edges of his walls and corners, and gently blur them, more in the foreground than in the background, until they appear to be lines drawn with watercolor. The images have a soft luminosity marked by tonal gradations that kiss the edges in each photo and fuse sharp planes with undulating lines.
Each of the pigment print photographs (all of which measure 66 ¾”× 55 ¼” framed and are dated 2006) is framed with white borders that make them easier to absorb. Every composition has its own personality: some of the images appear active and futurist, like the dramatic “C1032,” or shy and shifty, like “C1027.”
Before Colors of Shadow, Sugimoto often captured a deep sadness in his photos, as if they actively lamented the disappearance of black-and-white photography and its rarified worldview. Much of that melancholy has dissipated here. The Colors of Shadow series is Sugimoto’s first attempt at digital printing—though a transitional one. The photographs were first shot on film before being digitally transferred, as if he were still to hesitant too take that leap of faith.
One of the things Sugimoto’s latest series clarifies is the way the Japanese artist’s work relates to the obsessive themes of Andy Warhol’s oeuvre: memory, time and modes of representation. I have to admit that drawing a comparison between these two artists might seem far-fetched, especially before Sugimoto’s latest show, but let me explain.
Both artists work extensively in one series after another, reproducing images that are alike but shy away from exact replication, allowing the personality of each work to differentiate itself from the serialization. There also seems to be a dialogue at work: in his Theatre series (begun in 1975) Sugimoto cleverly inverts Warhol’s underground films, which fixated on the way modulations of light affect stationary images over time, by photographing theater interiors during the projection of an entire film, creating a single, distilled image out of the experience. Curiously, the Colors of Shadow evokes another Warhol series, the Shadow paintings from the 1970s. Both series focus on the murky world of shadows, which seems to continuously shift and change. Warhol and Sugimoto seem comfortable in the universe of projected forms, with their nebulous meanings and ephemeral natures. While Warhol’s shadows could be mysterious and foreboding, Sugimoto has chosen a more positive tone.
The question remains: Why does Sugimoto choose to marry his first foray into color with the world of shadows? The shadow itself is a loaded entity in the history of art. The ancient Greek historian Pliny suggests art was born when a Corinthian maiden traced the outline of her lover’s shadow on a wall. Another story tells of a young man who could not paint the Buddha because of his enlightened glow, and so was forced to paint the holy man’s reflection (or projection) in a pool of water. The Greek tale emphasizes drawing over color as the origin of art, while the Buddhist story suggests they were married from the start. Warhol seems steeped in the former (separating his drawing from his lush color), while Sugimoto’s sensibility seems akin to the Eastern fable.
My hunch is Sugimoto is poised to transform our notion of color photography more radically than his black-and-white images exploited the potential of the monochrome image, but all we can do is wait and see.