October 21, 2021 - December 5, 2021
by Elle Tyra
Phenomenological encounters with Minimalist sculpture have a way of leaving the viewer far keener of their surroundings and the world around them than prior to arriving in their presence. Indeed, the looming monolithic works we traditionally think of when Minimalism comes to mind do have a presence. Beit the sublime or objecthood, if you’ve come across a minimalist sculpture and felt small, vulnerable, awestruck, or suspected that the work was silently resting and daring you to approach then chances are that this was the artist’s intended effect. Chiasmus demonstrates that Sono Kuwayama is fully aware of the dialogue surrounding physically intimidating art objects and her latest body of work turns this tradition on its head.
Rather than working on a monumental scale, Kuwayama’s take on Minimalism employs intimate cubes that can often fit in the palm of your hand. Some of these small untitled objects can also be manipulated to function as paintings, or hover between painting and cube as undefined objects. Changing the artwork from one state to the next requires the viewer to interact with the work and carefully arrange the piece as desired. Several pieces such as Untitled (safflower), 2021 have a warm exterior that is hand painted with the artist’s own milk paint that she makes from scratch. The interior of Untitled (safflower) rewards viewer curiosity by revealing seed pods when the cube is opened.
Kuwayama’s handcrafted pieces acknowledge their own fragility in both their scale and function. As opposed to confronting the viewer’s frailty and lack of power as Minimalist sculpture often does, these cubes submit to being arranged according to the viewer’s whims asserting that they be handled with care, and rousing the viewer’s awareness of their own physical strength and agency while handling the objects. This reversal of viewer experience is Kuwayama’s nod to phenomenological psychology as described in the writings of Maurice Merleau-Ponty.
In The Primacy of Perception Merleau-Ponty explains a psychological phenomenon that naturally occurs as our eyes and mind work together to navigate our bodies through space as we encounter objects. It is our encounter with monumental objects such as tall buildings, ships, or large minimalist sculptures that speak to our temporality and powerlessness as humans. It is our encounter with delicate, flaccid, non-imposing objects that engage our agency. In contrast to encountering tons of machine torqued steel, or a ten feet of vertically installed iron units that force us to weigh of our diminutive stature in comparison, Kuwayama’s pieces showcase the viewer’s potential to impact the object and invite us to dispense with our expectations of what Minimalism should be. The varying nature of Kuwayama’s artwork also challenges the notion of painting or sculpture as fixed within one established category. These cubes are more than meets the eye and require that we not be standoffish, but bring a willingness to engage and explore their possibilities.
Chiasmus addresses the legacy of the “white cube” art gallery and the exclusivity that surrounds the art market. The esoteric nature of the art world often causes the public to stand at a distance and approach with caution. Kuwayama wants viewers to look inside the gallery with delight at what they may find. Our willingness to engage with the cube is a metaphor for how we should explore an ever-changing world. The artist invites the viewer to dispense with their notions of what artwork, a gallery, or a phenomenal experience should be. A sculpture can become a painting that then becomes an object. We can leave an art gallery or institution feeling energized and curious about the world beyond its walls. In ever changing environments that defy permanence Kuwayama’s pieces reflect the reality that things are not fixed regardless of how much we would like them to be. The only constant is change. Artwork that can invert its relationship to itself while also inverting the viewer’s relationship to the work and their surroundings cleverly pushes the limits of art and, I was delighted to find, also explores the meaning of chiasmus.