by David M. Roth
Photography’s future as an art form has long been a topic of debate. Now that it’s colonized a substantial part of the Internet, with Instagram alone pulling in 5.2 million images a day, the dialog has hit something of a crescendo among curators. The directions being charted, as revealed in exhibitions like ICP’s Public, Private Secret, Pier 24’s Secondhand, and the San Jose ICA’s Exposed: Today’s Photography/Yesterday’s Technology, point backward and forward. One faction, dubbed the “antiquarian avant-garde,” emphasizes photography’s 19th century chemical origins. At the opposite end of the spectrum are the Millennials: artists for whom the Internet represents bedrock reality and for whom digital tools and social media serve as sources of raw material and as platforms from which to launch careers.
New Material, an exhibition of eight mostly young Japanese photographers, samples these trends. The artists are mostly in their 20s and 30s. They’re well schooled, wildly experimental, highly disciplined and technically savvy. Their arrival in San Francisco arose out of a trip to Japan undertaken by the gallery’s principals, Julie Casemore, formerly the director of the much-missed Stephen Wirtz Gallery, and Stefan Kirkeby, owner of the Smith Anderson North in San Anselmo. The result is one of the most invigorating photo exhibitions to hit the Bay Area in recent memory.
Fireworks erupt the moment you step into the gallery and don’t let up. Enter and you’re faced with a floor-to-ceiling sheet of mylar carrying back-to-back images: an abstract cityscape on one side, a longhaired woman on the other. Both are bathed in iridescent shades of purple, pink, fuchsia and chartreuse that coalesce in swirling, vortices that bring to mind psychedelic light shows. It’s the work of Kenta Cobayashi, an artist who energizes old forms with new techniques. Where famed collectives like the Joshua Light Show achieved pulsating and sometimes erotic effects by manipulating film, slide projectors, liquids and much else, Cobayashi uses layering and Photoshop’s sharpening feature to generate similar sensations. Other even more abstract photos of his look like glitch aesthetics applied to the squeegee
paintings of Gerhard Richter. His uncanniest work is multi-layered video that shows a “neon” sculpture set before a single, continuous shot of swaying trees, filmed in the pocket park just outside the gallery. The sculpture is a virtual object, but the electric “current” running through its tubular shape feels like a rebooted form of light painting. By confusing the fake and the real — with electronic objects that masquerade as actual objects — Cobayashi injects fresh life into what was once a hackneyed pursuit.
Naohiro Utagawa’s work is resolutely physical. He makes pictures of studio detritus, which he cuts, pastes, folds, tears, tapes and photographs repeatedly so as to obliterate the identity of his source material. The results are site-specific installations. One employs the repeated image of an eye-shaped machine tool; it sprawls up a wall to form a ragged topography. Another consists of haphazardly assembled collages that are taped, like specimens, onto three parallel sheets of plexiglas and set into slots in an elaborate wood frame. Both feel raw and provisional and vaguely reminiscent of the work of Doug and Mike Starn, twins who, in the mid-1980s, “violated” prints in a similar fashion, but with genuine affection for materials and classical aesthetics. Utagawa operates under no such encumbrances. His Gutai-inspired anti-aesthetic turns photography’s implicit promise of objective representation against itself, insuring that what you see – surface, shape and color – is all that you see.
In a similar manner, Hiroshi Takizawa extracts inchoate details from photos, which he bends, folds and combines to form glossy, imaginary mountainscapes that echo, in appearance and purpose, the Anthropocene-leaning work of painters like Leslie Shows, Mary Anne Kluth and Kristin Baker. These works, like much else in the show, have their roots in Mono-ha, a movement that in the 1960s and 1970s, played roughly the same role in Japan that land art did in America and Europe, probing the relationship of humans to the so-called built environment.
The brightest star of New Materials is Daisuke Yokota, winner of the 2016 Foam Paul Huf Award. He creates camera-less images of chemical reactions made by processing fused layers of unexposed film. The prints, derived from scans of the pried-apart negatives, are records of the emulsion’s behavior. They occupy an interzone between painting and photography, akin in appearance to what Baker’s PVC panel paintings might look like if they were exposed to virulent microbes or corrosive chemicals. Only two such photos are on view, and that’s a shame because each is a
knockout. However there is (see above) additional evidence of Yokota’s photochemical fiendishness. It comes in the form of a single image: an ultra-grainy, high-angle night shot of New York that pays homage to Daido Moriama and to Bernice Abbott’s New York at Night (1932). For this, Yokota heated a portion of the negative, giving the black-and-white print the texture of alligator skin seen through a scrim of moon dust. Photos like these put the magic back into photography, returning us to its beginnings as a kind of conjuring act. (The same b/w photo also appears in a book called Classon, made in collaboration with Yoshi Kametani, whose portraits are also on view.)
Gender and identity performance occupy the remainder of the show, but results are uneven. Motoyuki Daifu’s photos of his messy domestic life, while competently rendered, show only banality writ large; while Momo Okabe’s graphic and emotionally wrenching photos of her lover’s sexual reassignment surgery cry out for more space. Then comes Fumiko Imano whose work fills an entire wall and part of another. At 42, she’s the oldest artist in the show, but her double self-portraits, with seams visible, make her look 13. Chalk it up to the culture of cuteness in Japan known as Kawaii wherein adults seek to prolong adolescence. It began with Hello Kitty in the mid-1970s. Now it’s reached a point where even construction barricades look like giant gummy bears, and department store hostesses are so over-feminized they make
Barbie look like a she-man. Imano doesn’t go nearly that far, but she certainly knows how deploy her charms, mugging for the camera in streets, parks, restaurants, churches, bedrooms and hotels, using dolls, food, fountains, toys and pets as props. Such images are the catnip of the Internet. They bypass criticality and invade the brain’s empathy centers, turning one person’s narcissism another’s entertainment.
This past spring, when Casemore Kirkeby opened at the Minnesota Street Project, it pledged to surprise. New Material, its second exhibition, makes good on that promise. These artists are mapping photography’s future.
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“New Material: Kenta Cobayashi, Motoyuki Daifu, Fumiko Imano, Yoshi Kametani, Momo Okabe, Hiroshi Takizawa, Naohiro Utagawa and Daisuke Yokota” @ Casemore Kirkeby through July 23, 2016.
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.