UNTITLED FROM "ILLUMINANCE," 2009.
On the top floor of the Hermès store on Madison Avenue, past shelves of signature silk scarves and leather accessories, hangs "Illuminance," a new body of work by the Japanese photographer Rinko Kawauchi. Bathed in the sun from the skylight at the top of the curling white stairs, in a setting that mimics the top-floor galleries of the iconic Guggenheim Museum by Frank Lloyd Wright, the fifteen works in the show exude a sense of calm, a zen-like attention to small details and muted colors. "I spend my life itself in photography," Kawauchi told Interview. "Place itself doesn't matter to me so much as the image that emerges."
Captured in various cities over the past 15 years, and shot from the hip with a finder Rolliflex camera, the untitled works, taken mostly without a flash, are marked by their luminescence. Depicting seemingly unconnected subjects—a small, dead bird lying on a pristine white background; a group of people emerging from a doorway onto a color flushed garden from the dark shadows of an unlit room; a man standing on an outcropping of rock over a moon-bathed ocean—the study of light itself seems to be the unifying theme of the body of work. In one image, shot in 2009, the headlight beams reflected off of the side-view mirror of a moped obscure the faint outlines of the city street behind it, an effect that blinds the viewer and captures the optical layering that occurs when an eye adjusts to the flat darkness of night. In contrast, an image taken in 2009 flattens pinpoints of purple, pink and turquoise lights, which blur across the two-dimensional composition like expressive, free form gestures of the hands, or a diffusion of comets.
Kawauchi is a member of an emerging group of female Japanese artists, which includes Chiho Aoshima and Eye Ohashi, whose work is increasingly gaining notoriety on the international stage. In opposition to her Japanese male contemporaries such as Nobuyoshi Araki, whose photography is characterized by an aggressive fetish for the subjugation of the female body, and Hiroshima Sugimoto, whose precise black-and-white compositions harness monumental spaces with a burly, almost masculine confidence, Kawauchi's works are, at surface level, distinctively feminine. That is, if femininity can be defined by almost medieval notions of softness and unassuming passivity, a characterization that the artist herself rejects. "There may be things that only a female can express, but in my works, it something that comes out naturally," she explains. "I'm not doing it consciously."