Shadow Play and the Art of Utako Shindo
SANTA FE, New Mexico – On February 5, 2020, Utako Shindo gave a public lecture titled “Subtle Shades Draw an Opening Path: The Poetic Work of Agnes Martin’s Art” at St. Francis Auditorium, New Mexico Museum of Art, Santa Fe. The conference allowed Shindo to report on his deep dive into Agnes Martin and her art. Introduced in an impression of her lecture as “a Japanese designer and resident at Forde Visser Archive Southwest, Santa Fe, in 2019,” Shindo was further described as an artist whose “studio and research activities are the untranslatable of art and shades of shadow-light as a medium.
I read a large portion of the print, which was divided into different sections including “The Untranslatable”, “Beauty_Light”, and Beauty_Darkness”. “The Untranslatable”, the opening section, begins with this description of what Shindo considers as an aesthetic experience:
As an artist and a member of the public, I notice something in a work of art that resists translation into common (prosaic) language. I experience it as a shift, an oscillation, a drift or a movement between the sensitive (sensation) and the intelligible (cognition). It’s like a shadow-light or nuanced shadow-light that grabs our attention without giving us any idea who it is/where it comes from. My attention is held by this “between-space”.
I read Shindo’s speech because I went to his exhibition Utako Shindo: Night falls and day breaks, at 5. Gallery (February 26 to April 9, 2022) and spent time in both of its galleries, where his small stoneware vessels and sumi watercolors were displayed from different angles. Looking at his work, I was always aware of my body moving through space. It was this state of self-awareness that interested me to examine, because it seemed to me essential to the exhibition.
I thought of Shindo’s use of the word “wobble” when I asked Max Baseman, the young man who started this intrepid gallery, whether the exhibit was meant to be an installation or not, and he said with a disarming honesty that he “didn’t have known” and quickly offered to put me in touch with the artist, who is back in Japan.
Like the title of the exhibition night falls and day breaks suggests, Shindo is interested in transitional passages and pivotal experiences, or what she calls “intermediate spatiality”. This sensibility was reinforced by the artist’s pairings of sumi ink drawings on watercolor paper with dark stoneware vessels (most of which are less than five inches high), the latter on the concrete floor of the gallery.
The exhibition is divided into two spaces, a small front/reception gallery and, beyond, the large industrial space. When you enter the first space, you are directly in front of “Untitled (lengthening and …)” (2021), a sheet of breakable paper placed on a white base, curved to stand, like a niche, its thin rows verticals inflected by light tones of sumi ink, as if someone were blowing the color into the paper. On the wall to the right, slightly above the top edge of the marked sheet, Shindo has affixed a curved sheet of watercolor paper to the wall, less than six inches square, with a few dark gray vertical stripes dividing it in half.
This pairing highlighted that Shindo is interested in a slowed-down experience in which the materiality of the object (here, the paper), as well as the gradients between light and dark, invite the viewer to focus on the things and their relationship. Shortly after viewing these works, I was unable to make a clear distinction between what was art and what was not. Was the black cast iron teapot sitting on the tale to the left of where I was standing part of the show? (The answer was no.)
On the wall in front of the teapot was a framed ink drawing, “Venus con ella – Subaru” (2020), the outline of which reminded me of the adorable creature Totoro in Hayao Miyazaki’s widely acclaimed animated film My Neighbor Totoro (1988). I learned from Baseman, who organized the exhibit, that the design was of a stuffed animal that Shindo had purchased from a toy store in Taos, New Mexico, which had once been Shindo’s studio. Martin. The toy was known to accompany Shindo wherever she went. In Shintoism, which is the oldest known religion in Japan, kami (spirits and supernatural forces) are known to inhabit inanimate things in the everyday world. Each family has its own ancestor kami.
Near the door leading to the large gallery, Shindo had placed the identically sized prints “Night Sight #1-2” and “Night Sight #3-4” (pigment ink printed on inkjet paper, both 2019) on adjacent walls. The prints depict nighttime views of trees through what appears to be a double-glazed window, its broad horizontal band partially blocking and framing the view. None of this prepared me for what I saw in the next, much larger space.
Shindo had carefully scattered pairings of stoneware vessels and sumi ink watercolors on the concrete floor throughout the artificially lit windowless space. Most stoneware vessels were less than three inches high and two inches in diameter. The placement of the watercolors relative to the sandstone did not seem programmatic or arbitrary. Some people cannot accept not discerning an underlying order, perhaps because the arrangement resists consumption. And this resistance repels capitalism’s emphasis on immediate gratification.
What struck me about Shindo’s decision to place the sandstone and sumi watercolor pairs on the floor is that he pushes viewers out of the usual role of passive appreciation. The discrepancy between my height and their wingspan was the first thing I had to deal with. Did I bend down to pick up a ship and, after looking at it and feeling it, put it back where it was, which was unmarked? And the paper? Some of the sheets were rolled up and freestanding. Others were formed into knots. A ship lay broken on the ground. Another was tucked at an angle into a slightly larger one. I briefly remembered mushrooms growing out of the forest floor. How should I approach pairings? Should I crouch, lie on the ground, sneak between them or try different possibilities?
The relationship of the sandstone and watercolors to the gallery space evokes the open, sparsely populated landscape around Santa Fe. This must certainly have been in Shindo’s mind when she installed the exhibit, as the care taken in the placement of works in the first gallery space clearly extended to the larger space.
Rethinking the title night falls and day breaks, I turned from the table I was sitting at and looked out into the large gallery space, where I began to focus on the streaks of sunlight on the far wall, flooding in light. front gallery. It was mid-afternoon. I asked Max to turn off the light in the gallery, which he did, and I sat there and watched the light and shadows change. I thought about the different kinds of durability and vulnerability that sandstone and watercolor paper possessed, the tonal gradients on the paper, Shindo’s decision to leave the broken sandstone where it fell, and the whimsical drawing of the outline of the animal in the front gallery, which I began to imagine as a spirit chair.
Without ever becoming dramatic or theatrical, Shindo draws attention to change, transience, persistence, adaptability, vulnerability and the presence of living spirits in our daily lives. It seemed like a good reason to sit there and watch the changing light as it slowly danced across the far wall, and to savor more of an experience different from what I encounter in New York galleries. I started thinking about my size in relation to the works, the gallery space, and the vast spaces inside an even larger and more unknowable outdoor space.
Utako Shindo: Night falls and day breaks continues at 5. Gallery (2351 Fox Road, #700, Santa Fe, New Mexico) through April 9. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.