Lydia Okumura: Situations is an extensive survey exhibition of the artist’s installations, sculptures, and works on paper, now on view at the UB Art Galleries
Labyrinth (1984) is one of the works on view at the UB Anderson gallery.
All works courtesy of the artist and BROADWAY 1602 UPTOWN & HARLEM. Photography by IMG_INK.
LYDIA OKUMURA: SITUATIONS
SEPTEMBER 8, 2016-JANUARY 8, 2017
UB ART GALLERY AND UB ANDERSON GALLERY
Lydia Okumura is an illusionist, a conjuror, a purveyor of the impossible. A Brazilian conceptual artist of Japanese descent, Okumura utilizes such common materials as house paint, string, wire mesh, and glass to construct geometric abstractions that convey intelligence while acting as visual conundrums. Her principal tools are line, shape, and human perception.
Lydia Okumura: Situations is the title of an extensive survey exhibition of the artist’s installations, sculptures, and works on paper, now on view at the UB Art Gallery, Center for the Arts and the UB Anderson Gallery. “I split it between the two locations to show a breadth of her work,” says senior curator Rachel Adams, who learned about the artist after a friend texted a picture of her work from the Independent Art Fair in 2015. The exhibition spans the artist’s career from 1971 through today, and it is her first solo museum exhibition in her adopted country of the United States, where she is less well-known than in Brazil. Her seminal site-specific installations from the seventies and early eighties have been recreated by the artist for this exhibition.
As with all conceptual art, in which the idea is the focus, viewers need to play an active role deciphering Okumura’s meaning. That often means perceiving with intent by purposefully viewing things from a variety of vantage points. “I installed [the work] with a lot of negative space so the viewer can move around,” explains Adams. There is a pragmatic reason she utilizes both UB galleries for the exhibition; the Anderson Gallery has sweep-around corners with no angles. That presents a problem because Okumura has a thing for corners. There is an inherent boxiness to most galleries, which typically results in flat work on walls, sculptures on floors. Corners are dead space, loathed by curators and artists. Okumura’s installations often embrace the corners, wrapping around them, and onto the floor.
Clockwise from above, left: Untitled I (1981), Suspension (1980), PS1 (1981)
At its most engaging, the artist’s work defies easy description, being simultaneously two- and three-dimensional. That may sound like something out of a quantum mechanics textbook, but consider Untitled 1. A navy blue geometric shape spreads across two adjacent walls and the floor. As you walk around viewing it from different angles, it shifts form until you reach the sweet spot in the gallery from where it can be perceived as a rectangular plane extending forward into space. Be patient; it takes a moment for the illusion to crystallize.
From three of the rectangle’s corners, black vertical lines are painted on the wall, connected by two inclining lines. Black string of the same weight as the painted lines runs from the rectangle’s corner on the floor, splits in two, and attaches to opposite corners on adjoining walls. Viewers undergo a bit of optical dissonance as the string lines appear to be drawn in thin air. When viewed from the aforementioned sweet spot, the overall effect is of a cubed rectangle in linear perspective, suspended in the gallery. Move, and the illusion dissolves.
There are several such works at the UB Art Gallery. They are deceptively simple in appearance, but executed with razor-sharp technical precision. Prismatic Appearance is a prism form delineated by rainbow colored “lines”—some drawn, some string—that fades into a black gallery wall as if vanishing into the night. In these installations, cast shadows from the string often create added visual befuddlement that must be mentally reconciled. In many ways, Okumura’s artworks are visual puzzles that beg to be resolved.
In Front of Light (1977)
In Front of Light is a large-scale installation of interwoven glass and white cord that the artist first created at the 1977 International Biennial of Saõ Paulo. It’s kind of like string art on a grand scale, particularly intriguing, considering the original was improvised on the spot from scavenged materials. Most of Okumura’s works on paper at the Center for the Arts seem like conceptual drawings for similar installations.
The work on display at UB Anderson gallery is more diverse. The Appearance is a sequence of silkscreened black-and-white photographs documenting a systematically changing string/line installation based on a cube. It looks more interesting than it sounds. Several works were reconstructed (by Buffalo Wire Works) from earlier designs by the artist. The most ambitious of these is Labyrinth, a spiral of painted wire mesh large enough to walk into. As the form curls inward, multi-colored geometric shapes on the mesh overlap, visible through one another.
Prismatic Appearance (1975)
Outdoors on the lawn are a couple of miniature land works originally created along with two collaborators known collectively as Equipe3. They were first installed in the garden of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Campinas, Brazil, in 1972. In Positive/Negative, Okumura digs a half-spherical hole into the lawn about the size of a small beach ball. She forms the excavated soil into a nearby grassy mound the same dimensions as the hole. A plastic dome covers the hole, echoing the mound. It’s simple, unassuming, and intriguing; homage to something not there, or to nothing being something there, or both. Relocation of the Cube creates a wedge-shaped hole and mound, and uses a mirror between the two to create something of a cube illusion.
An installation from 1972 offers insight into Okumura’s early development as a conceptual artist. It’s called Object Module–1mm3 / Modulo Objecto–1 mm3. On the floor upstairs in the Anderson Gallery, vinyl letters describe in Portuguese three different representations of a cube. The first is an actual small white cube sitting on the floor. Second is a square shape adhered to the floor. It seems too large to be a flattened representation of the small cube, but it works as meditation on two- and three-dimensional space. Third, and most intriguing, is a one-kilometer piece of white string. It’s not clear how this represents a cube, but no matter; it holds the key to what follows in Okumura’s career.
The string snakes around for a bit and then runs down the staircase, through some rooms, and out the door onto a concrete terrace where it might be mistaken for a wayward kite string. Then it comes back inside and snakes around some more. It’s an absurdist action worthy of early twentieth century Dadaists, whom Okumura studied and admires. Marcel Duchamp, in particular, introduced the concept that art is anything that an artist says it is. As in her later installations, the string is essentially a stand-in for a drawn line, unbound by two-dimensional space. Okumura makes her line perform tricks—travel up stairs, around corners, through walls, unfettered by linear convention. And here are the basic components of her art: line, shape, the concept of form, and perception. One way or another she’s been challenging viewers with these ever since.