New York, the birthplace of Minimalism, has not always been kind to artists striving to expand the genre’s reductive orthodoxies. Consider how long it took for this city’s art world to recognize the rigorous abstractions of Carmen Herrera, Virginia Jaramillo, and Mary Corse. Herrera was 102 and Corse was in her mid 70s when they had their first museum shows at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and Jaramillo was in her early 80s when she had her first solo museum show at the Menil Collection in Houston. Instead of seeing them as derivative, the art world began to recognize these artists as pioneers.
Born in 1955, a decade after Corse, Kim Uchiyama belongs to a generation of women abstract artists who have yet to receive the recognition they deserve. When I visited the exhibition Kim Uchiyama: Heat and Shadow at 499 Park Avenue, in the building’s lobby gallery, the artist’s first solo show in New York since 2014, I asked myself: What does Uchiyama do in paint that is her own?
In 2015, Uchiyama began taking regular trips to Sicily. The seven paintings in the exhibition were inspired by the different sensations she’s had there, from the natural light and the changing color of the soil to the excavated temple sites of Selinunte and Agrigento. For the artist, the question was how to capture this collision between nature and the manmade, the changing light and aging ruins the entirety of one’s experience in a specific milieu, without becoming anecdotal or narrative.
Uchiyama’s visual vocabulary consists of painting stacked bands at different intervals on raw linen. In her choice of color, height, placement, and spacing, she imbues the painted bands and the spaces between them with equal importance. The internal rhythms and shifts between the painted and bare bands recall a well-known statement by the great English essayist and critic Walter Pater: “All art constantly aspires to the condition of music.”
I felt that condition in Uchiyama’s work, as the interaction between the painted and unpainted bands establishes a dynamic, tightly choreographed composition. Like watching dancers move back and forth across the stage, looking becomes an active, engaged act, which is uncommon in the work of celebrated Minimalists. Uchiyama’s paintings open up a space of self-reflection as they summon the viewer’s personal associations.
“Selinus” (2018) and “Meridian” (oil on linen, 72” x 72”, 2021), displayed in close proximity, make a good introduction to the particularities of Uchiyama’s work. Despite their similar palettes of ocher and cerulean hues and use of four horizontal bands of paint set against bare linen, the differences between the two are significant. In “Meridian,” wide ocher bands are placed beneath a narrow cerulean and turquoise band near the top edge of the square canvas. Intervals of unpainted linen are the color of coriander. While the placement of the colors suggests earth and sky, Uchiyama undercuts that perception with the linen intervals. She further complicates our experience of the work with dark and light hues that create the illusion of a receding view. Finally, the square surface refuses a reductive reading of the painting as landscape.
Sicily, which was ruled by many groups, including the Greeks, Phoenicians, and Normans, was an important site of contact for different cultures. Uchiyama’s paintings conjure these associations without spelling them out. In “Selinus,” named for an ancient port in southern Turkey, the artist reverses the color scheme, placing a wide ocher band in the upper part of the painting and three cerulean bands below. The irregular spacing between the colored bands leads me to wonder about their proportional relationship. The longer I looked at these paintings, the more there was to see.
The remaining five paintings are displayed in a close proximity on one wall, like a series. While I saw connections, again, the differences came to matter most to me. And while the writer/reader in me wanted to make associations between the painting “Odyssey” (2020) and the Homeric epic of Ulysses’s 20-year voyage to Ithaca, Uchiyama resists the literal. That resistance is crucial to the viewer’s experience of her work. Inspired by the light and landscape of the Mediterranean, particularly of Sicily, Uchiyama wants to free the work from those bonds without denying their inspiration. That she has found a way to work within a tightly circumscribed vocabulary and make something both fresh and singular is no small accomplishment.
Kim Uchiyama: Heat and Shadow continues at 499 Park, The Lobby Gallery (499 Park Avenue, Central Midtown, Manhattan) through September 1. The exhibition was curated by Jay Grimm, Jay Grimm Art Advisory, and Kaitlyn Ward.