Sugimoto vs. Zupcu

Hanging now are two photography shows that consider similar issues. Sonnabend Gallery is exhibiting Hiroshi Sugimoto’s series of large scale still life photographs of simple, but elegant industrial forms. At the same time, Brian Clamp Gallery is introducing the work of Ion Zupcu. This surprising show is a great counterpoint to the Sugimoto show. Where Sugimoto examines industrial forms and patent models, Zipcu presents small but engaging still life photographs, of what ordinarily is an unprepossessing subject: paper.

Sugimoto’s studies of the modeling of form, light and dark are seductive and fascinating despite the risk that. these photographs could have remained simply academic exercises in light and shade. A few of the images of reductively simple forms do call to mind traditional still life drawing classes in which students are required to render a cube, cone and sphere. Sugimoto, with complete control of black and white photographic technique, masterfully keeps his prints’ tonality within a subtle range of values. The gradations of light and shadow are so finely nuanced that the three dimensionality of the forms appears to barely emerge from a deep black background.

To my mind, Sugimoto, is most successful when he plays with the ambiguities of spatial illusion. This is most clearly accomplished with the iconic, reductive forms presented centered in black space. One series of wooden shapes readily call to mind the sculpture of Brancusi and Arp. Were the objects to be photographed for the maximum illusion of three dimensionality, the contours of his subjects would clearly separate from the background. When directional light models falls upon a subject, the side facing the light source will be modeled and shaped by how the light falls upon the topography of the object. In photography, if the aim is to fully render an illusion of three dimensional volume, it is important to provide additional light to the contours of the subject that are not exposed to the light. This would be characterized in photographic parlance as “fill light.” If no fill is used, the unlit side of the object would render as black. Sugimoto uses his fill to barely separate the shadowed side of his forms from the black background. In doing this he plays with the modeling, allowing the tonal distinction between object and background to be so small that the three dimensional rendering of the objects seems to flip back and forth, creating an illusion of both positive volume and negative space. WIth some of the prints, the object almost appears to drop behind the background, and the background appears as the picture plane, rather than a proper spatial rendering in which the 3 dimensional illusion is definitive. This kind of spatial play has long been explored in painting, but is seldom the concern of still life photography.

Ion Zupcu examines spatial illusion too, but his play with light, shade and three dimensional modeling is strikingly transformative. The objects that he photographs are nominally two dimensional, but the illusion of three dimensionality depends only on shading and focus. In each photograph, basic shapes are modeled. In one photograph a sphere is suggested and in another a triangle. Calling to mind the early 20th century photographs of Man Ray and Moholy Nagy, Zupcu works with strips of paper. He pushes his investigations towards illusionistic space rather than the more graphic arrangements of his predecessors.

In Zupcu’s photographs, shapes constructed from strips of paper are placed on white backgrounds. With surprising economy, he employs the sparest of materials and techniques to explore some of the same spatial ambiguities of Sugimoto’s work. For example, Zupcu simply makes a loop from a sheet of paper, places it on a background and photographs the assembly. By employing a very shallow depth of focus and soft light, the dimensional illusion becomes ambiguous. The image can be seen at once as a sphere, a short tunnel of paper, or as a flat sheet of paper penetrated by a glowing orb. Another image of a sheet of paper bent into an upside down “V” formation spatially reverses foreground to background and back again. Zupcu’s focuses his camera on the front edges of his paper constructions, but allows the back edges of the form to become very fuzzy and indistinct. When looking at the actual object, the eye would see a crisp delineation, but the photograph depicts the object dissolving in an edgeless glow.

Both Zupcu and Sugimoto recognize that there are issues other than description which can be explored with the medium of photography. With great command of their craft these artists are examining how their materials and technique can at once render volume and space both realistically and ambiguously.