The human body is subject to odd permutations in new Seattle art-gallery shows by Tomiyuki Sakuta (Davidson Galleries) and Francesca Sundsten (Grover/Thurston).
Odd things happen to the human body in the intaglio-and-chine-collé prints of Tomiyuki Sakuta — or, rather, odd things become human bodies in the Japanese artist’s work.
In “Visitors,” his first U.S. exhibit, Sakuta creates a fantastical world where anthropomorphic figures merge with or derive from flora, architecture or machinery. Each creature stands alone against a pale background, allowing Sakuta’s fastidious detail to stand out all the more sharply.
Some figures are gentle; some bristle with threat. Some have a spiraling energy to them; others seem snarled in a fierce or anxious struggle with themselves.
“Bound by Herself” is the most vivid example of the latter. It depicts a sad-eyed female nude with disembodied arms and legs wrapped around her at every possible angle, grasping her too tightly for comfort, maybe even smothering her. At the other end of the spectrum is “Playing with a Hula Hoop,” in which a gyrating figure swivels so happily that she seems to be whirling to pieces.
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“Chatterbox” waxes satirical about a character composed of so many pull-out drawers that her whole body seems thrown out of whack. A more scathing observation is made in “Dishonest Bride,” in which a corset-strapped tree tries without success to pass itself off as human.
Sakuta takes on power dynamics in the baroque “Ruler,” a warrior-shaped stone edifice with subsidiary (if not subservient) creatures nestled within it. At belly level, six bare-buttocked beings coweringly head inward toward the solar plexus, while a lone rebel at the groin is sprinting away with get-me-out-of-here urgency.
Certain of Sakuta’s “visitors” are more serene. “Holy Gardener” has the flair of an Arcimboldo, the Italian painter who teased human visages out of fruits and vegetables. But here the figure is built from leaves, blossoms, tendrils, roots and branches. “Walking in the Woods” captures another kind of peace as a small forest, sprouting from the head of an otherwise disjointedly sliced-and-diced figure, provides a glimmer of organic relief.
“Windmill Keeper” and “Clockwork Son” show off Sakuta’s antic side, reading like a blend of Terry Gilliam’s animation and a Rube Goldberg contraption. Even when they raise a chuckle, though, Sakuta’s works are dazzling labyrinths for the eye and mind to wander, rewarding the closest scrutiny.
A polished surrealism
Odd things are happening to human figures in a new exhibit of oil paintings by Seattle artist Francesca Sundsten, as well. While Sundsten’s people aren’t composites of floral and mechanical bric-a-brac, they’re still subject to subtle distortions and the occasional mutation — or it may just be that the antlers rising from the head of the woman in “Costume Party” are part of her festive guise. At any rate, they help her fit right in with the company she’s keeping: an owl, a rabbit, a fox, a rather peculiar deer and, in her bouffant hairdo, a little white mouse.
Sundsten’s polished technique calls to mind the Old Masters, but her sensibility is distinctly surrealist. In “Costume Party,” for instance, the peaceful meadow landscape of the background seems, on the left, to be slipping down a silken fissure. Sundsten’s sky vistas also display unusual weather phenomena, such as cumulus clouds attached to each other by what look like gauzy umbilical cords.
More startling still is “Lord of the Butterflies,” in which a friendly-looking, blue-eyed gent with a hint of a five o’clock shadow also happens to boast a pair of pert female breasts. (The blue-winged butterflies swarming around him don’t seem to mind.)
Not every painting throws that kind of curveball at you. But most of them stretch your notion of what, in another universe, might be plausible. And they’re painted with a bravura technique that makes you want to take off your hat — or antlers — to the lady.
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org