Vanishing points

Hiroshi Sugimoto turns a refined eye on dead queens and silver screens

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REVIEW Like drive-in movie theaters, the white-mantled colobus, and Henry VIII's wives, the increasingly rarefied qualities of elegance and generosity are most certainly doomed to extinction, rendered worthless in our schlock-culture era of crass and sass. This is not so, thankfully, in the work of Hiroshi Sugimoto, who, in his eponymous, conceptually rigorous, utterly gorgeous midcareer retrospective at the de Young Museum, single-handedly rescues refinement and magnanimity — along with windblown silver screens, leaf-eating African monkeys, and those half dozen Catherines, Janes, and Annes — from the dustbin of history.

Including some 120 black-and-white photographs taken with a large-format camera during the past three decades and glowing with a numinous luminosity, the exhibition is so richly (in all its connotations) conceived and presented, so brimming with the artist's and curators' intelligence and desire to simultaneously challenge and enrapture viewers, that it stands not only as the year's best big local museum show but also as a timely reminder that we must look beyond the horizon ostensibly separating sea from sky, for that is where the truth lies.

Sugimoto's work is all about true lies. He is fascinated with artifice that yearns for authenticity and with impervious factual data that melts into dream logic. Unlike many Japanese photographers of his generation — he was born in 1948 — who are attracted to either the grisly chic of atomic apocalypse or the fleshy flash of alarmingly nubile Harajuku teens, Sugimoto generally eschews the stereotypical tropes that now largely define, at least from afar, his homeland's manga-mad visual vocabulary. This is quite likely due to his singular vision as much as to his transcontinental toggling between New York and Tokyo since the early '70s. Inspired during his childhood by chirping crickets, electronic gadgets, and bedtime stories and later by André Breton's surrealist manifestos, Giorgio de Chirico's otherworldly paintings, and the teachings of a Buddhist priest who told him that the only human reality is shit, Sugimoto has coalesced his influences into a clearly unified yet constantly surprising oeuvre at once classical in its formal precision and postmodern in its beguiling content.

Moving fluidly from representation to abstraction to the uncanny, the exhibition beckons viewers into a carefully designed sequence of dimly lit galleries showcasing thematically linked series of large-scale images. Sugimoto also designed the site-specific installation, playfully using the room's curved sides, dramatic spotlights, and a particularly effective wall of mirrors to supersede spatial certainty.

Nature and culture tussle for authority throughout the show, notably in photos of dioramas taken at the American Museum of Natural History, where Sugimoto spent many afternoons during his first months in Manhattan, staring at taxidermied polar bears and handcrafted manatees posed in ersatz habitats. Equally fake yet lifelike are Henry VIII and his unfortunate beloveds, whom Sugimoto photographed in all their waxen glory at Madame Tussauds, looking as if they were sitting for 16th-century portrait painter Hans Holbein the Younger. (Be sure to take a careful count of Anne Boleyn's fingers.)

Nature triumphs in Sugimoto's masterful seascapes — or does it? The longer you gaze at these nearly monochromatic studies, the vanishing point where ocean meets sky recedes ever farther, and soon enough they cease to resemble the sea — see? — and transform but not transfigure into Ad Reinhart or Mark Rothko paintings.

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