Reina Sugihara, Memory of Rib, 2022, oil, charcoal, plaster, and gauze on wood panel, 64 1⁄8 × 44 1⁄8".

Reina Sugihara, Memory of Rib, 2022, oil, charcoal, plaster, and gauze on wood panel, 64 1⁄8 × 44 1⁄8".

Reina Sugihara

Reina Sugihara’s solemn paintings emerge from a structured process of experimentation, guided by an instinct to trace the haptic memory of forms. For the works in her recent exhibition “Frame,” she used two sources: a book of anatomical drawings of human bones and an egg-shaped stone. Employing oils of the highest viscosity, Sugihara starts her daily painting sessions by painting on top of the previous day’s efforts, imagining that the wood panel ground is “blank”; as a result, the finished works are closer to diary entries. They oscillate from dreamlike to nightmarish, always with a distinctive, milky sheen that seems to refuse to dry. Apparently, the orientation of the painting—which side constitutes the top or the bottom—is decided only upon hanging.

In Memory of Rib (all works 2022), Sugihara’s process speaks with clarity and exactitude: Spiraling cuts and lines (some faded, some fresh) dissect fields of pale silky pinks and yellows, orbiting around a darker yonic core and evoking not the figure of a body but rather a hazy memory of its sensations. This and the other moody compositions on display raised the question, When is a painting finished? In Blue suggested a potential answer: What was once an eye or perhaps a fleshy wound is almost entirely swallowed up by a sinister bluish glossy darkness, a motif lost to the dense materials that had been applied and reapplied for days, weeks, maybe months. The artist appears unafraid of her motifs succumbing to overpainting; indeed, she seems to argue that those excessive final layers are not superfluous, but ripe with meanings of their own.

Sugihara’s propensity to work by way of chance, erasure, and layering evokes Samuel Beckett, the writer who famously birthed his short 1965 fiction Imagination Dead Imagine from a manuscript in which almost every paragraph had been crossed out in black marker. Beckett considered his work the “exercise-book that opens like a door and lets me far down into the now friendly dark”; Sugihara, too, uses painting to plunge into the depths of her preoccupations, sometimes to a fault. In a spherical object in blue, for example, where a circle is imprinted on an otherwise empty (if uneven) plane of dark indigo, one caught oneself adrift in the artist’s eccentric methodology, wondering what parts of the painting might be hiding farther below. 

Like Beckett’s short text, Sugihara’s motifs show a preoccupation with shapes and their disintegration—her work is full of anatomical circles and rills, cracked vaults, ruptures between insides and outsides. Carried contained a whitish thing anamorphically erecting itself in front of a low-hanging, yolk-like sun; in Untitled, a final layer of moss-green paint produced an accidental and fractured illusion of a sprawling, haunted forest inside a rib cage. Sugihara isn’t afraid of linguistic signification, but she insists on distorting it. We, the viewers, are left with the sensations of these effects, reflecting mentally on the way they hit us in the gut.

On the exhibition’s floor along the wall was an untitled sculpture: an egg-shaped stone, perhaps citrine, sitting on a metallic holder that was in turn nested into a moon-shaped wooden plank. This might have been the circular form cryptically referenced in a spherical object in blue. Otherwise, connections between this work and the others remained tenuous, or personal and intuitive. Yet Sugihara’s egg is no mere attempt at conceptual mystification; it is, instead, a gesture of transparency—a showcase of the exercise book, if you will, that sparks her particular blend of morphological poetry.