New York

Miyako Ishiuchi

Laurence Miller Gallery

When she turned 40 in 1987, Miyako Ishiuchi began to photograph other women born in the same year. Until then she had focused primarily on her own environment. Though it might seem as if she had shifted away from a rather narcissistic project, in effect, these subjects were significant only because they were as marked by time as she was, and also female. Though she set out to acknowledge the differences among these women as much as possible—each photograph is labeled with the subject’s occupation and shows her hands or feet—personal identity is all but wiped out to reveal the ravages of time and labor. Perhaps the most startling aspects of these images are the bunions and calluses that encrust many of the feet. The nail polish on one set of fingers glistens slickly, but otherwise the hands are as barren as the feet. The images contradict the cliché of femininity as glamorous. In general, the theme is sheer exhaustion—the dimensions of the human and specifically female condition—presented without pathos, simply as fate.

Ishiuchi’s photographs also communicate the isolation—which the artist tries to pass off as individuality—of her subjects. She positions each pair of hands and feet more or less centrally, as though they were detached from the body. Ishiuchi turns her camera into a magnifying glass, enlarging the details of the skin—to the extent that we can effortlessly trace the veins and pores—until they seem almost overwhelming. The sense of isolation, even though it is presented on such an intimate scale, is immense.

All of this is not simply a matter of what the psychoanalyst/art historian Mary Gedo calls psychoiconography. Ishiuchi wants to turn the ordinary into the abstract: to purify the presence of certain otherwise ugly, unsightly, banally human shapes. She suggests that everything can be redeemed by the grace of art—by the right shading, the right placement, the right distance. She may be right, but she doesn’t successfully convert her fragments of humanity into self-sufficient forms. Her empiricism is merely heightened; it doesn’t transcend its object. Most of all, Ishiuchi is too identified with these hands and feet, too concerned to suggest their victimization by life, too eager to make the (quasi-) feminist point that women suffer more than men—as though men didn’t have “problems” with their hands and feet, and time. Ishiuchi wants to stop time at its ostensible midpoint, invariably a crucial moment of regret and reckoning. Implicit in her self-obsession is a privileging of the female as more “sensitive”—more aware of the trauma of time than men, which is absurd. In her own oblique and narrow way, she monumentalizes female self-consciousness. She is another victim of feminist hubris, which is why her photographs fail as the high art they pretend to be.

Donald Kuspit