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Painting “Containers”


A solo exhibition in 2007 (an image on its invitation card I saw before the exhibition, to be exact) was a bit of a surprise to me. There were calm still-life paintings of bowls, bottles and various containers simply aligning in a row just as if Zurbarán painted in the 17th century. Speaking of Yumiko Sugano, didn’t she introduce herself as a “cheerful and lightsome New Wave” artist in the early 1980s, showing a painting of a whale exposing its skeleton and laughing “Ha! Ha!” or lively installation art using fighter-aircraft like birds? Subsequently, her work changed to simple objects with mysterious atmosphere in the late 1980s, but the freewheeling installation at the debut age gave a strong and fresh impression and the difference from that dumbfounded me.

However, I was strangely convinced by looking at actual paintings. I would like to turn my imagination into why things made sense to me.

1992 was the last year in which Sugano had her exhibition due to her health condition. At that time, her portrait published in a magazine looked haggard like a sick person. According to her, she had no energy to do anything and felt weak. She was not depressed or withdrew from society, but she was mentally down and was not able to make any artwork for the next 15 years. It was a few years after the beginning of the 21 century when she took up her paintbrush at last.

What does someone who used to paint want to paint when she takes a paintbrush in her hand again after 15 years of “silence”? Plainly speaking, I suppose it is the “silence”. Painting the silence is perhaps her revenge, and appreciation at the same time, for her 15 years of inaction. However, what does it mean to paint silence? The inside of silence is “voidness” and there is nothing. It is a state of being filled with “nothing”. Voidness is “emptiness” and also “hollowness”. If you want to paint a state of containing nothing, it can only be a “container” that contains voidness. It may sound too good like a word play, but it has not a little truth to paint containers when you feel down.

Once again, I would like to ask what the painter paints when she takes the paintbrush in her hand again after having painted nothing for long periods of time. Perhaps, she wants to paint things within her reach, love for those “objects” being there, and “gratitude” for their existence. It is also a mere conjecture that her world view will change when she continue a “quiet life (still life)” for 15 years. She could express that loudly, but this modest person, like “still life”, started to paint ordinary objects as they are. Those ordinary objects were “containers”.

It is easy to say that you paint an “object” “as it is”; however, it is extremely difficult, or rather impossible to actually do. This is because we are unable to see the very “object” as it is. When we think we see a “container”, what we see is just light reflected from the container. “Seeing” is a phenomenon in which the image of the container is formed in the brain by receiving the reflected light through the retina; so we do not see the container itself, but we just feel light. Therefore, what we paint is “light”, not the “object”.

This was already practiced nearly 150 years ago by impressionist painters. They stopped painting portraits, landscape, or still life like painters before them did and tried to reproduce the light their eyes caught by colors. For impressionists, there was no great difference among portraits, landscape, and still life, and they just tried to settle playful light in paintings (Vermeer is probably the only painter who understood this before the impressionists). Since then, “painting objects” in a simple way has been declined as ignorant or deceptive, and some turned to expressionism or abstractionism, some sought answers in objects, and in the end, they reached “Mono-ha” in which materials are presented as they are. When we define the above as modern art in the 20th century, it is obvious that Sugano is not simply painting “objects” when she restarted painting in the 21st century.

Let me approach the impossibility of painting “objects” from a different perspective. Whether it is a person or landscape, there is no difference between them as they are both “objects = substances”. You may say that the large portion of the landscape is the air (the atmosphere), but the air also consists of substances that are more flexible than solids and both can be analyzed into molecules, atoms, and elementary particles. If you look into this microscopic world, there must be sparse space similar to the universe. In further analysis, there is even no entity and all that remains is vibration. Ultimately, substances are vibration without entity and merely “fluctuation” of space. Therefore, “a landscape with a container”, for example, is not a state in which the container exists in the empty space, and it should be described as a state in which two realms with different density of fluctuation are produced.

It is almost like a Zen riddle at this extent, but it is perhaps an elementary premise for Sugano who has interests in the quantum theory and the philosophy of religion. The question is whether she can paint it.

Seemingly, Sugano tries to paint containers and space equally. It is not necessarily successful, but you can see that she tries to capture containers and space as parallel existence, not as containers existing in space. However, the contents of that existence are merely fluctuation and a sparse microcosmos is spreading there. Sugano will continue to paint such “containers” filled with “nothing”.

(August 2019, Art Journalist)

English Translation: TSUKUDA Maie