- The Washington Times - Friday, February 24, 2006

It’s hard to fathom that celebrated Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto shot all of the 120 images in his eponymous show at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.Though elegantly introspective, with a distinct Japanese take on the 1970s New York conceptualist and minimalist movements, the images present widely different aesthetics absorbed in the artist’s homeland and the United States. Most important are the paradoxes of his native Japan. For example, consider that country’s violence during World War II, a time when kamikaze pilots sank U.S. destroyers. Remember, also, Toshiro Mifune’s ferocious, gut-slashing swordplay in the movie “Seven Samurai,” still popular with Eastern and Western audiences.

There also are the subtlety and delicacy of the tea ceremony, perfumes of cherry blossoms and geisha entertainers.

Yet Mr. Sugimoto’s masterful use of light connects and enhances the paradoxes of his varied artistic approaches. One that softly carves light into water is in “Manatee” in his “Diorama” series; another that captures the blazing light of shooting one movie in a single frame is seen in the old-fashioned-looking “Avalon Theater, Catalina Island”; still another illuminates and softly blurs the “Chrysler Building” in his “Architecture” series (1990s).

Look first at the exhibition’s deceptively realistic “Dioramas,” wildlife photos Mr. Sugimoto (born in Tokyo in 1948) took in natural history museums beginning in 1974.

Another trick of the eye occurs with “Portraits,” a 1999 series of historical likenesses photographed in London’s Madame Tussaud’s wax museum.

Harkening back to Japan, Mr. Sugimoto went to Kyoto to shoot his brilliant “Sea of Buddha,” 48 photos arranged as a long Asian scroll. The Kyoto temple, called the “Hall of Thirty-three Bays” or Sanjusangen-do, contains 1,001 of the near-identical statues of Buddhist kannons.

All reveal his love of detailed, layered “realities” inspired by his father’s love of variety theaters. Writing in the exhibit’s handsome catalog, he remembers, “My own father didn’t spend all that much time with me, but occasionally he’d take me out with him. We always went to a ‘yose’ (variety theater) that hosted ‘rakugo,’ comedic one-man storytelling shows.”

Next, examine the photographer’s more abstract work with his “Theaters” series (1975), shown here with old drive-ins on one side of the gallery and documentary renderings of old movie theaters on the other. They begin with highly detailed photos of the iconic “Avalon Theater, Catalina Island” (1993) and end with even more intense blazes of light in several others.

His work then moves through the hypnotic “Colors of Shadow” series in which he shot shadows of the “shikkui,” or plaster finishing, in his Tokyo hilltop apartment.

The colors appear as melodic variations of soft whites, grays and beiges, of which he says, “When the surfaces of the ‘shikkui’ receive light, the light effects vary according to the angle of exposure. In the morning light, the shadows play freely over the surfaces. On rainy days, they take on a deeper, more evocative cast. Already I’ve discovered a sublime variety in shadow hues.”

He continues through the blurred, double-focused skyscrapers and churches of his 1990s “Architecture” series to the final large, curved wall holding his irresistible “Seascapes” of the 1990s. (One is from 1980.)

It’s not surprising that Mr. Sugimoto — profoundly interested in Zen Buddhism and Shintoism, the native shamanistic nature religion of Japan, — chooses the most abstract expression of his work — the “Seascapes” — to crescendo the show.

Beginning in the right corner of the curved-walled, darkened gallery, he presents sharply delineated, hard-edge rectangular areas of horizons and seas that he shot all over the world, from his “Caribbean Sea, Jamaica” to the “North Atlantic Ocean, Cape Breton Island.”

He then gradually softens images through the middle areas, in which light takes over more of the frames and, at the far left, explodes them into flashes of light like those of the movie theaters.

“The sea is immutable,” he writes on an exhibition label, “and, thus, began my travels back through time to the ancient seas of the world. All life on earth began in the sea and is where we come from. It embodies eternity.”

WHAT: “Hiroshi Sugimoto”

WHERE: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue at Seventh Street SW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily through May 14


PHONE: 202/633-1000

ONLINE: www.hirshhorn.si.edu

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