Something That Was There Just a Moment Ago
“Trying to exclude contrivance, intention, or expression as much as possible, simply and normally, I want to paint a thing as it is there.” The artist comment presented at a solo exhibition in 2007 was literally two simple lines. Among the exhibits, there was [four things_1] (later retitled [four_1]) which was the first piece when Sugano started to paint containers in oils like she does now. Four different containers are arranged nearly at equal intervals in a row. They are placed quietly on a flat surface of a shallow shelf under faint light from the upper left. Very quiet time was painted there.
In a solo exhibition in February 2011, she wrote in an artist comment, “A container contains a hollow, therefore it is a container. …the silent hollow, which simply exposes its emptiness before my eyes, still attracts me.”
I have not gone to all exhibitions of Sugano Yumiko’s container paintings. However, paintings such as [five_4] and [two_16] exhibited in a solo exhibition in 2012 made me wonder because she started to paint a background wall with complex and uneven structure and deep darkness seen beyond a rectangular opening of the secluded part of the wall.
Until then, I thought space inside Sugano’s paintings where containers were placed as space with a real horizontal surface and an actual wall behind it. However, Sugano recently said, “What I am thinking is the world further beyond the painting” and I started to think, “So I was wrong…”
Sugano wrote in a pamphlet of her solo exhibition in January 2015 as follows: “When you look into containers, each contains a hollow with a different atmosphere. That hollow of a good container is deep. The deep and quiet hollow, beyond that may be a different world yet to be seen waiting for you, and this thought makes me excited.” Is Sugano trying to invite a person who tries to face her painting and have conversation with it to “somewhere beyond the deep and quiet hollow” inside the container? Is there “Another World in a Pot”?
And yet, rather than “somewhere beyond the inside of the container”, I am almost drawn into a deep dark part beyond the wide opening of the secluded part of the wall in “the imaginary space” where containers are placed.
During my early adolescence when I started to read art books, one illustration of a painting remained strong in my thought. On a deserted street corner in the late afternoon light, a building facing the street casts a dark shadow sharply at an angle. A girl is rolling a hoop alone and heading for the end of the street. It evokes strong anxiety since you cannot see what is there beyond the corner of the building and there is a sign of something that hides in that invisible part. “Wonderment” that I felt from Sugano’s paintings might be similar to this shiver with the sign of something behind.
In Cassina ixc. in Minami-Aoyama, Tokyo, Sugano’s container paintings were displayed in an exhibition STILL LIFE – Omaggio Morandi – in 2014. Last autumn, I asked Sugano about “the difference” between her paintings and Morandi’s container paintings. I thought Morandi perceived objects as a group rather than “individuals” and tried to paint “the total appearance that the group created”. Sugano also paid attention to the fact that Morandi did not use individual containers as they were, but he even painted bottles when necessary. She told me, “The reality of containers seems not to be required in his paintings,” she continued, “By contrast, the reality of actual containers is a very important element for me. The actual containers are necessary to paint a quiet sign of something that seems to be there but actually not.”
In 1914, a year after Morandi graduated from Academy of Fine Art in Bologna, he met Boccioni and Carrà in A Futurist Evening held in the town. This event also became a background for early Morandi’s “Metaphysical period”. By laying my memory of seeing Still Life (1920, Morandi Museum), which was painted within that time frame, upon Sugano’s painting of four containers, I notice that there is a reason for the similarity in an atmosphere around a bottle, a bowl, a can, and others.
Furthermore, I also asked Sugano about “the difference” between Kishida Ryusei’s still-life paintings in oils such as Three Apples (1917), a painting of golden apples arranged at equal intervals in a row, and An Apple Exists on Top of a Pot (1916), a painting of an apple placed on top of a large pot, and Sugano Yumiko’s container paintings. It might seem a malicious question, but I do not think a challenge that the Japanese contemporary painting is facing can to be the same as one hundred years ago.
Sugano’s answer was simple. “Ryusei seems to face a motif with obsession, perhaps to approach itself. I paint containers, but it is not to approach containers, it is to feel an atmosphere of utsuho surrounding containers.” “Utsuho” means void, emptiness, or hollow, so that Sugano excellently maintains a consistent position.
Aa a matter of fact, two years before Sugano had a very first solo exhibition after graduating from Tokyo Zokei University, I went to see her group show with six or seven students of that university when she was still a student. It was in 1982. Walking for a few minutes to the south from Tachikawa Station, it was probably an entrance hall of a civic hall, I vaguely remember a large space with a high ceiling. In that space with no partition where visitors were coming and going, there was an artwork that remained clear in my memory for a long time. It was a so-called installation work in which various things in a clutter were piled up, but I clearly remember an “atmosphere” that was there.
Shabby wooden boxes like apple crates were used as a frame of the work, and numbers of them were disorderly piled and lined up. Openings of the boxes were covered by latticed sticks or wire meshes as if indicating that a hen was inside. It may be an “increase” of my memory to please myself, but I think there were even feathers inside and outside of lattices scatteredly. Not only feathers, but also there might have been eggs placed there. There might have been bare light bulbs installed… Anyhow, her work had a strong sign of something (heartbeat of a living thing, for instance) that was there just a moment ago.
In other words, this work was made to show the non-existence of something that was there just a moment ago. Sugano now “paints the atmosphere of utsuho” and her “water source” long before was already there.
(February 2018, Art Critic)
English Translation: TSUKUDA Maie