Ethereal Art: Simple Objects Arouse Awe and Fear in The Right Lighting

Yvonne Magno

Writer’s comment: When my English teacher assigned my class to do an art review, the first thing I did was groan. I do enjoy and appreciate most forms of art, but a review requires taking on a point of view of another person’s work and ideas, interpreting them into your own, and perhaps critiquing or distorting them. And although many artists do want their audiences to form their own opinions, I have never been comfortable criticizing another person’s work. However, when Dr. Palo assigned the review, she was in the middle of an important lesson: to think about all the rules of writing we had learned and see how they inhibit our writing abilities. With this in mind, I set out to write my review of Kunie Sugiura’s “Dark Matters/Light Affairs” with a sense of appreciation, humor, and insight. And upon writing the review, the only trouble I had was describing the physical attributes of her work and the feelings they aroused. Although I still feel I did not do the artist justice in my descriptions of her work, I tried to incorporate a conversational style into the review to convey to the reader the same tone and feeling that I got from personally observing the photograms.
—Yvonne Magno

Instructor’s comment: Art reviews are difficult: they have to be really engaging—informative and entertaining—so that readers can see or imagine the art for themselves. Yvonne Magno meets both these challenges. Her review explains, in understandable terms, a very unusual form of photography. And her review puts the reader into the gallery, giving us the experience of viewing the photographs and reacting to them, so that we come to see why we might want to go to the art gallery. I love the way Yvonne uses her own reactions and observations to make us want to see these photograms for ourselves.
—Susan E. Palo, English Department

Ahhhh, spring. A glorious time for art to capture all the living things: tulips, roses, irises, and . . . frogs? Squids? Octopi? Spinal cords? This assortment of eye-catchers and palette-pleasers is the subject of the latest art collection at UC Davis. From April 6 to May 18, the campus will be displaying “Kunie Sugiura: Dark Matters/Light Affairs” at the Nelson Art Gallery. This collection showcases 25 of the internationally renowned, New York-based artist’s photograms, which she has produced over a period of twelve years. A photogram is a camera-less photograph; artists place objects in front of photographic paper and expose them to light, creating images and silhouettes. In Sugiura’s case, she places live objects in front of the photographic paper and captures their shadows and forms, creating images similar to film negatives and positives. This type of manipulation appears simple, but is actually quite tricky; the artist must use skeins of swirling photographic chemicals to add color and keep the photograms fixed at the printing stage, so the wrong amount of chemicals may ruin the picture. Although art lovers everywhere can enjoy the simple beauty of the photograms, true photographers will appreciate the technical and production aspects of Sugiura’s work.
         The display is in a spacious showroom painted in white and gray and lacking in light, which puts the main focus on the work. From a distance, the work actually looks like simple watercolor paintings. The photograms, ranging from 5' by 4' to 4' by 3', are hung on the walls and brightened by individual spotlights. At the wall farthest from the door hang two much larger photograms, as well as a postcard rack. The display is set in a large showroom and spreads to an adjacent, smaller room, which houses several photograms and a 3' by 1' by 4' Plexiglas tank full of light blue water. Once you get past the inquiring young lady at the front desk, you can begin.
         In this smaller room, the photograms show images in black and white, with hintings of light blue (the very same shade of the water in the tank). The images are of two live creatures associated with water: our friends, the frog and the catfish. The frogs are shown in a series of photograms along one wall: Hoppings A Positive 1996, Hoppings H Positive 1996, Hoppings D Positive 1996, in which Sugiura took toned gelatin silver (a chemical skein swirled onto the paper to add color and catch the image) and mounted it on aluminum (the picture’s backboard). In this series of three photograms placed together, you can actually see the entire outline of the frogs, and the shadowing makes them appear to be in motion. In Namu (Catfish) 1994, Sugiura shows both black and white catfish silhouettes splashing through a blue and gray ocean floor. The most intriguing part, though, is that you can see, very slightly, hintings of rocks and an ocean floor, a fine example of Sugiura’s use of chemicals to add color and imagery to the photograms. Although she might have been aiming for Namu in an Oil Spill, Sugiura succeeded in capturing the catfish in what appears to be their natural habitat.
         I suggest you take your time in this smaller room—the bright, cheerful blue coloring and aquarium-like look make it the only uplifting portion of the display. With these particular photograms, Sugiura is able to freeze the creatures in action, giving them a timeless appeal while simultaneously suggesting animation. The room has a noisier, more animated feel than the rest of the display, and is appropriately separated from the artist’s other work.
         In the larger room, we see similar photograms, only Sugiura uses sepia (the brownish coloring we see in those awful “Western” photographs tourists love so much) or simple black and white. Octopi 3 1990 and Squids 1 1990 both show various patterns of the creatures in black, white, and shades of gray. In these photograms, Sugiura enhances every detail of the creatures by arranging their bodies in creative patterns, using shadows and silhouettes, and making eight legs and a million tentacles look incredible (and less edible). In Tower 1989, Sugiura captures the light hitting through the veins of a plant, creating another action image. Sugiura also takes photograms of various buds and strings of flowers in black and white and sepia. These photograms have a darker, gloomier feel to them. Sugiura captures the flowers and suspends them in a space of black and white, making them look creepy, almost skeletal-like. The sepia photograms have a misty, cloudy look and give off an eerie, timeless effect. It is possible for the viewer to become fearful that they are alone in this world after staring at these photograms for an extended amount of time, so beware.
         The larger pictures on the far wall are actually 4' by 3' photograms placed together to form the full-body silhouettes of The Boxing Papers, Carter and Leah 1999 and The Boxing Papers, George and Mike 1999. These fabulous photograms are simple black and white silhouettes of the boxers in action; the women seem to be at the end of their round, weak and flailing, while the men have just begun, strong and at each other’s throats. Following this display (appropriately) is Patient Zero 1993, an encased photogram of the human spinal cord. The postcard rack (which is actually two fastened together and suspended from the ceiling and anchored to the floor) contains postcard-sized photograms of the human skeletal frame, including the spine, the skull, wrists, ribs, etc. The rest of the display shows three sets of both the negative and the positive of the same picture. Each is an arrangement of flowers in a stack or pile.
         Sugiura’s photograms show the silhouettes and shadows in a serene, almost ethereal way. The images are ghostly, suspended in space and lacking time or place. Sugiura even manages to make beautiful flower arrangements look frightening. But she captures the forms of all the objects well, from the drooping flower heads to the sea creatures “in motion.” It is rare that beautiful pieces of art with such simple, everyday objects can make a person both delighted and scared. (The boxers’ presence was so real that I kept turning around to make sure they had not moved or popped out of the paper.) If you cannot understand the techniques used, you can still appreciate the beauty of the artist’s images. I myself have returned on numerous occasions, and each time left in awe of Sugiura’s talent and mesmerized by the eerie beauty that her pictures evoke. You may never see or experience art quite like this—timeless, floating, frightening, and beautiful.

This display is open Monday through Friday from 12-5, and Sunday from 2-5. It is free to the public.