BY Bruce Hainley in Reviews | 03 MAR 99
Featured in
Issue 45

Hiroshi Sugito

BY Bruce Hainley in Reviews | 03 MAR 99

In her diaries, Virginia Woolf compares Proust's prose to the light vibrancy of a butterfly, strung together with catgut. Hiroshi Sugito's paintings exude similar, contradictory qualities; filled with light and space, decorative touches and fey goings-on, the paintings are resilient, assured and (perhaps surprisingly) rigorous.

Refreshing to eyes bored or annoyed by neo-moderne gestures, their contemporaneity has been won by Sugito's stubborn adherence to his own private explorations - which is not to say that they disregard matters of style or stylistics. Trained in the 19th-century Japanese painting methods of Nihonga (a school started in reaction to Western pictorial influence), Sugito complicates traditional structures by adding elements which recur with the uncanny dreaminess of fairy tales or traumatic nightmares: small animals, magical creatures and architectures (as in Octopus Tower, all works 1998), accumulations of chairs, love seats, fauteuils, poufs and sofas, shafts of light and bright flowers, rockets, battleships and stealth cruisers. They might have come from a child's attenuated negotiation of tales of the battles and bombings leading to Hiroshima. The effect is strange and compelling: imagine the delicate haunting that could occur if Robert Wilson and Agnes Martin collaborated on a reinterpretation of the works of Florine Stettheimer and Leonora Carrington.

Sugito stages vision. Whatever actual spaces they depict, the paintings have an almost allegorical relationship to seeing, to the geometries and architectonics of vision, to the eye in relation to the mind. This is partly because it is difficult to think of the rooms he creates connecting with other ones: they don't seem to be rooms in a house, mansion or castle; the stages are resolutely stages but somehow not part of a theatre - they are, or seem to be, isolated, like the brain in the singular skull of a human head, self-contained even in the middle of a crowd. Theatrical curtains, draperies and scrims allude to the eyelids' interruption of viscous globe and world; they hang at the sides of most his canvases. Sometimes the sea is seen through them, like a distillation of a Canaletto; at other times the blue expanse of sky or ocean or the contemplative aquatic of the imagination resting. In one of the most quietly odd and beautiful works, The Net, a gossamer scrim partially obscures the sea view behind it. The vantage is always from slightly above, peering from some great distance downward - views of floors from a skewed perspective, childlike or faraway.

His attention to the fullness of empty space recalls the spare precision of painters of the Edo period - Tawayara Sotatsu's poppies almost bloom again in Sugito's most breathtaking painting, White Floor, along with what could be daffodils, cornflowers or asters - mossy accretions which hint at the blossom occurring when verticality meets horizontality. The flowers, like the chairs in other paintings, direct the gaze towards intersections. The canvas appears rubbed and worked and dry - qualities reminiscent of Etruscan walls worn down, ground by time and the brush of human lives. The interior depicted in the painting appears to be another in Sugito's series of meditations on rooms and sparse spaces, until, slowly it reveals its co-ordinates to be that of Foxx's: you face the painting and what you see is a representation of what you would see if you had eyes in the back of your head.

The paintings converse among themselves. The red of Red speaks with the red doors leading who knows where in White Room. Certain rooms with various tiny chairs and other teeny seatings accumulating around their periphery might be borrowed from rooms which have none. The Net drops a veil on the bombardments of Falling and Crossing the Sea, paintings to which it is intimately related. Red also points to new spatial interventions Sugito might be ready to explore - it is the only painting which alludes to a room or place or space underneath and above what is depicted. A pole, perhaps in a firehouse for mice, disappears into the hole in the middle of the floor.

When it doesn't merely dull the senses, the daily inundation of visual stuff and static can be overwhelming. Sugito has found a way to confront the onslaught of the present not by retreating from or appropriating it, but by presenting the theatre of private moments between the acts. He has written about his work: 'I guess invisible things should be kept invisible and unexplainable be kept unexplainable. When something appears or is put in, something disappears from the same moment. I am just chasing them like an endless game.' However diminutive their depictions, Sugito's paintings are large enough for anyone to roam in and spacious enough to dramatise thoughts about looking and the fictions of what is seen.

Bruce Hainley lives in Los Angeles, USA. His book, Foul Mouth (2006), is published by 2nd Cannons, Los Angeles.