New York

Futoshi Miyagi

Daniel Reich Gallery

“Dear stranger,” begins a typical introductory e-mail by Okinawa-born, New York–based artist Futoshi Miyagi. “First of all excuse me for sending this weird message.” If the opening address is both tender and awkward (can a stranger be “dear”?), so is the project to which it relates—an ongoing series of photographs begun in 2005 titled “Strangers,” each of which features Miyagi in an intimate, sexually suggestive scenario with a different man (and one transgender person). Nine of these pictures featured prominently, alongside several sculptures and installations, in “Brief Procedures,” the artist’s compelling recent solo debut at Daniel Reich Gallery.

Gathering his strangers in much the same way that one might suss out a casual hookup, Miyagi employed online sites such as Gay.com, Friendster, and Craigslist’s “men seeking men” sex section, though he also occasionally relied on neighborhood gay bars and, crucially, word of mouth. This methodology might explain why even a quick perusal of “Strangers” reveals the socially incestuous nature of New York’s gay landscape—Stranger #6, 2005, for instance, features Miyagi with Paul Mpagi Sepuya, another Brooklyn-based photographer, whose own work The Difference Between a Memory, a Portrait, a Resolution, 2006, was included in the gallery’s previous show, “When Fathers Fail.”

At first glance, the pictures in “Strangers” appear to capture decisive emotional moments between lovers. If the photos in Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills” (1977–80) sift images from the reservoir of our cinematic unconscious, Miyagi plays a similar game, staging simulacra of the charged “snapshots” popularized by photographers like Nan Goldin and Peter Hujar. Miyagi’s pictures—all of which are taken at his subjects’ homes—are delicate, sometimes partially out-of-focus shots that rely on available light and accoutrements (tousled clothes, unmade beds) to give the impression of a casual immediacy. Formal composition aside, at a time when derivatives of “gritty” Boston School–style photography often merely mine the look rather than reflecting actively on their sources, Miyagi’s work feels refreshingly risky. (Japan—the southern region in particular—is not known for its tolerance of homosexuality, and Miyagi considers this project a sort of coming out.)

Several of the other works in the show—two small sculptures, an installation involving artifacts from the artist’s bedroom wall, and handwritten translations of lyrics by the Japanese pop band Spitz—poetically pursue “Brief Procedures”’ larger themes of identification, abnegation, cultural alienation, and melancholia, but their execution falls short of the elegance of the photographs. One exception is Untitled (How to Disappear Completely; I Thought I Was Floating; Snapshot), 2006. The piece comprises three parts: A glass vial filled with bleach, two digital C-prints documenting the process of dipping a portrait of the artist into a tub of the corrosive liquid, and the final result, a small, colorless snapshot displayed in a clear plastic bag. It’s a subtle but complex tableau—an installation that contains its own catalyst, indexical record, and product—and it offers a plaintive, ethereal complement to “Strangers.”

While Miyagi’s work is remarkably personal, it also provides an intriguing counterpoint to current events. At a time when the principal (or at least most salient) feature of American gay and lesbian political discourse is the struggle for state recognition of same-sex marriage, “Strangers” runs interference, not necessarily challenging, but certainly offering a counterpoint to politicized celebrations of long-term relationships. Miyagi’s photographs interrogate the circumstances of intimacy, suggesting that our most honest exchanges may also be our most fleeting, that strangers may be “dear” after all.

David Velasco