Meeting and Greeting Like Shadows

Bending Over Shadows:
lengthening and lingering the line

text by
Linda Swanson


When I think of Utako Shindo’s work, I think of her making it. I imagine a kind of preparation of the brush with ink and of her body with breath and then a moment where they stretch together across the paper; it is never a fixed image. Even as I write these words, I recognize the echo of an essay [1] that John Berger wrote about artist Vija Celmins, in which he compared her patience, bent over her drawings, to that of Penelope working at her loom, waiting for “news” from afar. With that distance-collapsing attention, Penelope strategically weaves/unweaves a story and Vija fixes an image. Utako’s equally attentive work is both—especially as, bent over the paper, her hand travels an unfixing line.

One of the physiological reactions I have to Utako Shindo’s work is that I try to see it. This is not meant to be funny or obvious but to call attention to its very specific provocation. To look at Shindo’s work is not passive; sometimes it even strains, in every sense of that word. I feel it in the stretching muscles of my eyes, and I sense it as a filtered reduction of her mark. An active peering is required because the work actually exists on a threshold of perception made by the subtle value shifts and the way the sumi ink sinks into the paper. There is a fragile (un)revealing happening before your eyes, as you sense it might disappear. It is the opposite of what we think of an artist doing—bringing into light, manifesting, resolving the image, showing us something, even/especially if it is not a representation. Shindo instead suggests these linear passages, which are neither image nor abstraction, may have already existed and are now disappearing. I feel like the longer I look, the more they will vanish, so I try to savor them pulling away, even as the repetition of line reassures existence. Returning to Berger, "To draw is to look...A drawing of a tree shows, not a tree, but a tree-being-looked-at." [2] With Utako Shindo’s work, I wonder/wander farther: not about a tree being looked at but a tree being unlooked at. A kind of resemblance, perhaps, but not driven by visual faculties. How does the tree, or Shindo’s repetition of line, visually exist outside-of-before-beyond our looking at it? Becoming and unbecoming. It seems like an impossible task—to make happen on the paper, the unhappening of the image or the trace.

I happen to know that Utako Shindo has made drawings of trees, but arboreal painting was not her project at Youkobo artist residency. However, since her work is specifically responsive to conditions of her environment, her studio (at this or any of her artist-residencies, or at home in Tokyo) becomes an apparatus (not unlike a camera obscura) and those experiencing her installation at Youkobo in person will surely sense this. On our recent zoom studio visit, Utako showed me the filtered shapes of trees on the frosted glass windows, which she then opened to reveal the twisting winter limbs of a Japanese magnolia tree. In the courtyard below, she told me, a little girl often plays with her grandmother who is sometimes bent over the child’s play-table to paint with her, their happy sounds drifting up. As if to help me “see” this, or just for her embodied joy of it, Utako then performed a low squat and folded forward over an imaginary scene, a huge smile spreading across her face, and by contagion, mine. Here, the body becomes a focused concavity to gather, and then express, experience. Nothing will get by that scoop of torso. In this installation, Meeting and Greeting Like Shadows [3], drawings on low stools “so that the delicate light can sift over them,” and over which she invites us to bend closer, reperforming aspects of the maker’s posture. “Keeping low... by sitting or folding,” Utako demonstrates, “maintains the intimacy.”

Filtered through the other second-story studio windows at Youkobo, there is a faded blush of sky, a sharp bounce of sun, or a tracing of an occasional branch. Shindo is sensitive to the room as a weather of conditions—light, air, time—and a climate of its history: the structure was built as a sanitorium, an architecture of care and recuperation. (Somewhat ironically, tuberculosis was associated with artists; consumption pathologized the vulnerabilities of a sensitive creative spirit.) Shindo has been responsive to the shadow cast by that episode, too: in this former clinic dormitory, she has performed restive/resting observations of light and recognizes “that this building is meant to heal people.” She refers even to a large pond close by whose effects on air and light in the entire neighborhood suffuse a cleansing atmosphere. Screens (frosted windows, the white of the paper, the history of the building, atmospheric moisture) offer both luminous boundary and porous escape. The drawings, which register linear washes as movement across surface and which she names as shadows, are thresholds between seeing and unseeing, remembering and forgetting.

On a lung x-ray, a shadow is disease, and painting, the story goes, was invented by a shadow- inspired longing (love sickness)—tracing the lover’s shadow as they left. A mark originating in the physical fact of a body but reaching beyond it in space and time, lengthening away, recording the passing and disappearing, a shadow is cast. It is a proof of existence beyond one’s own body; a shadow happens at the seam between an embodied existence and the world beyond. Peter Pan was desperate to retrieve his lost shadow and, according to some folklore, vampires have none because shadows are the proof of soul-fullness.

Shindo’s painting-drawings originate in her body, cast beyond it as line. Like shadows, they are fugitive calibrations, durational records, material-effort dilutions. It is the character of brush/ink that as the line extends, its concentration lessens—like a shadow. Lengthening is an evening quality of shadows at the hinge of light and time. Lingering is a residual quality of shadows as our embodied experience shifts to memory. In this installation, Utako Shindo offers us the beautiful frailty of that passage.

[1] Berger, John. The Shape of a Pocket. New York: Vintage, 2001. Print. “Penelope.” 45-48.
[2] Berger, John. Berger on Drawing. Occasional Press, 2005. Print.
[3] In a “bow” to artist Agnes Martin, Shindo paraphrases from Martin’s poem “My Friends and I”, as printed in El Crepúsculo De La Libertad (Taos, NM), Sept. 11, 1958: “...We meet and greet like shadows meet and greet...”