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 lecture allowed Shindo to report on her deep dive into Agnes Martin and her art. Introduced in a printout of her lecture as as “a Japanese creative fellow and a resident at Forde Visser Archive Southwest, Santa Fe, in 2019,” Shindo was further described as an artist whose “studio and research pursuits are the untranslatability of art and nuanced shadow-light as medium.”
I read much of the printout, 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 an aesthetic experience:
As an artist and an audience member, I notice something in an artwork that resists translation into everyday (prosaic) language. I experience it as a shift, oscillation, drift, or movement between the sensible (sensation) and the intelligible (cognition). It is like nuanced shadow-light or light-shadow that draws our attention without giving us a clue of who it is/where it is from. My attention is held by this “in-between-spatiality.”
I read Shindo’s talk because I had gone to her exhibition Utako Shindo: the night falls and the day breaks, at 5. Gallery (February 26–April 9, 2022) and spent time in its two galleries, where her diminutive stoneware vessels and sumi watercolors were displayed from different angles. Viewing her work, I was always aware of my body moving through the space. It is that state of self-awareness that I was interested in examining, as it seemed essential to the exhibition.
I thought about Shindo’s use of the word “oscillation” when I asked Max Baseman, the young man who started this intrepid gallery, whether the exhibition was supposed to be an installation or not, and he said with disarming honesty that he “didn’t know” and promptly offered to connect me with the artist, who has returned to Japan.
As the exhibition title the night falls and the day breaks suggests, Shindo is interested in transitional passages and hinge experiences, or what she calls the “in-between spatiality.” This sensibility was enhanced 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 gallery’s concrete floor.
The exhibition is divided into two spaces, a small front gallery/reception area and, beyond it, the large industrial space. When you enter the first space you are directly in front of “Untitled (lengthening and …)” (2021), a scored sheet of paper atop a white pedestal, curved so it stands, like a niche, its thin vertical rows inflected by slight tonalities of sumi ink, as if someone breathed the color into the paper. On the wall to the right, slightly above the scored sheet’s top edge, Shindo has affixed to the wall a curved sheet of watercolor paper that is less than six inches square, a few dark gray vertical bands dividing it in half.
This pairing made it clear that Shindo is interested in a slowed-down experience in which the materiality of the object (here, paper), as well as gradations between light and dark, invite the viewer to focus on the things and their relationship. Soon after looking at these works I was unable to make a hard 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), whose outline reminded me of the lovable creature Totoro in Hayao Miyazaki’s widely acclaimed animated film My Neighbor Totoro (1988). I learned from Baseman, who organized the exhibition, that the drawing was of a stuffed animal that Shindo had bought in toy store in Taos, New Mexico, which had once been Martin’s studio. The toy was known to accompany Shindo wherever she went. In Shinto, which is Japan’s oldest known religion, kami (spirits and supernatural forces) are known to inhabit the inanimate things of the everyday world. Every family has its own ancestral kami.
By 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 two-paned window, its wide 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 dispersed pairings of stoneware vessels and sumi ink watercolors on the concrete floor throughout the artificially lit, windowless space. Most of the stoneware vessels were less than three inches high and two inches in diameter. The placement of the watercolors in relation to the stoneware seemed neither programmatic nor arbitrary. Some people cannot accept being unable to discern an underlying order, perhaps because the arrangement resists consumption. And this resistance pushes back against capitalism’s emphasis on immediate gratification.
What struck me about Shindo’s decision to place the pairings of stoneware and sumi watercolors on the floor is that it pushes viewers out of the customary role of passive appreciator. The discrepancy between my size and their scale was the first thing I had to deal with. Did I bend down and pick up a vessel and, after looking at and feeling it, return it to where was, which was not marked out? What about the paper? Some of the sheets were curled and freestanding. Others were formed into knots. One vessel lay broken on the floor. Another was nestled at an angle within a slightly larger one. I was briefly reminded of mushrooms poking up from the forest floor. How was I to approach the pairings? Should I squat, lie on the floor, thread my way through them, or try different possibilities?
The relationship of the stoneware and watercolors to the gallery’s space evoked the open, sparsely populated landscape around Santa Fe. Surely this must have been on Shindo’s mind when she installed the show, as the care that went into her placement of the works in the first gallery space clearly extended into the larger space.
Thinking again of the title the night falls and the day breaks, I turned around from the table where I was sitting and peered into the large gallery space, where I began focusing on the bands of sunlight on the far wall, flooding in from the front gallery. It was mid-afternoon. I asked Max to shut off the gallery light, which he did, and I sat there and watched the changing light and shadows. I thought about the different kinds of durability and vulnerability the stoneware and watercolor paper possessed, the tonal gradations on the paper, Shindo’s decision to leave the broken stoneware where it had fallen, and the whimsical drawing of the animal’s contour in the front gallery, which I began to imagine as a presiding spirit.
Without ever becoming dramatic or theatrical, Shindo calls attention to change, the ephemeral, to persistence, adaptability, vulnerability, and the presence of living spirits in our everyday life. That seemed as good a reason as any to sit there and watch the changing light as it danced slowly on the far wall, and to further savor an experience unlike what I encounter in New York galleries. I began to think about my size in relation to the works, the gallery space, and the vast spaces within an even larger, more unknowable space outside.
Utako Shindo: the night falls and the day breaks continues at 5. Gallery (2351 Fox Road, no. 700, Santa Fe, New Mexico) through April 9. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.