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Take Flight

Artist Takes a Figurative Look at Japanese Cranes

Wooden Ships: "Howl" and other photos at Gomez Gallery document Al Zaruba's creation of an environmental installation in New York state.

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 5/2/2001

Man and Crane: Paintings by Goro SugitaAl Zaruba: The Scent of Light

Towson University's Asian Arts Gallery through May 12Gomez Gallery through May 12

Cranes fly through artist Goro Sugita's imagination, but you generally won't find them directly represented in the abstract paintings he's showing at Towson University's Asian Arts Gallery. There are few literal depictions of nature here, and yet natural associations are everywhere. That's why these untitled paintings hang together well under the collective moniker Man and Crane.

This Japanese artist has spent many years observing the endangered red-crowned crane that inhabits the northernmost Japanese island of Hokkaido. These sleekly beautiful birds (called tancho by the Japanese), which symbolize good fortune, haven't had much luck at the hands of man. As the artist declares in a statement, "I would like to tell you all about human beings through wild cranes."

It's interesting to see how Sugita tackles this ambitious agenda through abstract means. On a thematic level, Man and Crane seems a bit of a stretch, but on a technical level, the exhibit more than holds its own. The artist relies on layers of paint that are rubbed down and then repainted. Even when there is a field of color in which one color dominates, others peek through in what amounts to a soupy mix.

All that layering is visually interesting, and it lends itself to expansive thematic interpretations. You might feel as if you're looking through a microscope at cellular life. Then again, you can trade in the microscope for a telescope and feel like you're looking up at the heavens. This would certainly explain the red orbs that anchor so many of the paintings' compositions. These stars or planets indicate an artist whose reach extends way out into the universe.

Even if he is reaching from Hokkaido up to the heavens, Sugita hasn't entirely left that Japanese island behind. The cranes sport a red spot atop their heads, and so these orbs at least serve as reminders of the inspiration for the series.

While you're making associations, you also might conclude that Man and Crane is stylistically connected to American abstract art of the post-World War II era. Sugita often places orbs or circular forms within differently colored rectangular forms. This basic strategy has affinities with Kenneth Noland's so-called "target" paintings, and you can probably pick up connections in Sugita's work to that of other New York School artists.

Of course, you don't need to choose between the heavens, Hokkaido, and art history when looking at these paintings--you can imagine all those elements percolating in the mix. By the same token, the artist occasionally incorporates sparely painted figurative references to eyes and bird wings; you can make them out if you let your eyes scan the busy layers. It's as if he wants us to have at least a slightly palpable sense of the specific sources of inspiration.

Man and Crane would be even more interesting if these figurative allusions were worked more often and more directly into the overall compositions. There's no reason why the cranes need to be nearly extinct within the paintings. Why not let them fly amid all those painterly layers?

The interaction of man and nature also gets a workout by an otherwise very different artist in Baltimorean Al Zaruba's exhibit at the Gomez Gallery. The Scent of Light focuses on photographic documentation of, and costumes for, an environmental installation Zaruba made last year in Stone Quarry Hill Art Park near Syracuse, N.Y.

He built an 82-foot wooden ship around four living hickory trees--in other words, a "dead"-wood construction made around living wood. The ship became the staging ground for performances in which the artist wore costumes supported by wooden armatures, outfits with draped shapes made not from cloth but from shredded plastic trash bags. The interaction between natural and artificial materials is so bluntly handled that anyone wearing such a costume looks to be very much a shaman of the modern age.

Zaruba's Cibachrome photographs of his shiplike construction in various times of day and seasons are of more than documentary interest. They effectively raise primal questions about human intervention in natural landscape. Similarly, the large trash-bag costumes, while created for use in performance, have enough visual impact to merit gallery installation on their own. They're not finely crafted, but they do have an obsessive and intense quality that surely represents the guy who made (and wears) them.

The photos, costumes, and a few other sculptural objects make for a visually cohesive if philosophically esoteric ensemble. Even if you're not convinced by the pretentious claims made in the artworks' titles and accompanying artist statements, there's no denying that a forceful artistic personality is grappling with serious issues in a life-or-death way. And he's playful about it too, which makes it easy to smile as you see the extent to which nature is in Al Zaruba's nature.

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Artscape's Exhibitions Have the City Covered, Inside and Out

Lorry Salcedo (6/4/2003)
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