New York

Hiroshi Sugito

Nicole Klagsbrun

The second New York show of twenty-nine-year-old Hiroshi Sugito featured paintings of extraordinary delicacy that came, playfully, in two sizes: tiny and enormous. While many of this young Japanese artist’s contemporaries have been enthralled with mass-media imagery in the form of Japanimation, video games, and advertising, Sugito clearly finds his inspiration elsewhere. Drawing on the fantasies of childhood, he fashions dainty renderings of imaginary animals, dreamlike stage sets, bizarre machinery, and gargantuan buildings. The artist approaches this strange and charming subject matter with an equally strange and innovative painterly technique, using scratchy little marks of colored pencil and often applying pigment directly to Japanese paper. With his finely finished surfaces and use of unexpected media such as heavy paper placed on stretchers, Sugito invites viewers to look at his paintings, whatever their size, carefully and at close range.

In many of the works in the show, Sugito captures a child’s delight in disregarding conventions of scale. Paintings (all 1998) range in size from a mere five-and-a-half by seven inches (Torio) to the seven-by-eleven-foot panels of the diptych elephant man and flowers. The images offer a host of quasi-Surrealist tableaux. In Torio, a little bird standing on a stage appears to be taking a bow; in elephant man, something that looks like either a building or a monster appears to be under attack by tiny aircraft; in flowers, the miniature blossoms of the title are subsumed in a larger design of pale purple, aqua, light green, peach, faded blue, and pale yellow rectangles. The overall effect is of a skilled colorist who has somehow, without cutesiness, captured in naive, fresh-hued work the essence of childhood.

Like a little boy entering a room filled with toys, Sugito seems in these works to head directly to things that immediately capture his attention (faces, clothing, feet), leaving broad areas of canvas or paper relatively untouched. One of the most captivating images on view is dance, in which a group of small creatures joined in a circle dance together on an otherwise bare stage. The lack of an audience, the sense of performing rather than being, and the broad sections of empty space all give this whimsical image an underlying tenderness and melancholy, suggesting the loneliness intrinsic to imaginative play. Sugito’s use of lace here, collaged in the shape of a curtain or proscenium, superficially resembles a child’s arts-and-crafts project, intimating a process governed less by tradition than by whim.

Concerned with the mystery of childhood and the evocative possibilities of his craft, Sugito has created a fanciful world of precarious beauty. In a culture now dominated by prepackaged fantasy, his work’s valuation of the personal over media-generated imagery makes it not just pretty, but quietly important.

Justin Spring