Susumu Kamijo’s work ricochets between figuration and abstraction. Known for his paintings of poodles—irrepressible, colorful works—Kamijo’s new work is of an entirely new order. Though his canine muse persists, the subject of the paintings has become less legible and the overall tone less outwardly joyous. Instead, something strange and sinister has taken hold.
Faces are reduced to their constituent shapes and volumes. Elements float and hover in relation to each other against a blank field—canvases primed with transparent gesso so that the rawness of the material comes through. Leering eyes, grimacing teeth and weapon-like whiskers are held in suspension by a bulbous exoskeleton, what was once the topiary-like grooming of the dogs.
Kamijo credits the influence of Francis Bacon for the spareness of his compositions in which a single figure is set against a schematic background. As is true of Bacon, by deemphasizing the background and foregrounding the figure, the psychological tenor of the work is highlighted. Arguably, all good portraiture captures something of the sitter’s psychology—this is the truest “likeness” any painter can achieve—and Kamijo, like Bacon before him, is successful at drawing out his subject’s darker attitudes.
Guston is another avowed influence. It’s curious though that, so far, Kamijo’s career has taken the opposite direction than that charted by the American painter. Whereas Guston’s famous turn away from abstraction and towards figuration unleashed a tidal wave of unsettling imagery, Kamijo’s progressive moves towards abstraction have unearthed more compelling forces underneath the happy facade of his earlier works on paper.
Kamijo explains this turn is the result of a technical consideration as he attempted to translate his pastel on paper portraits to canvas. “Drawing is different than painting in that you are spreading a gooey substance on a bumpy surface. I was used applying a certain amount of pressure with my pastel pencils to make marks. This is not how it works with a soft, impotent brush. I couldn’t transfer the look or feeling of the drawing to the canvas.” And thus, the work as it had been had to cede to this new medium so that something new might emerge.
Also representative of this new direction is Kamijo’s foray into sculpture, an edition produced in collaboration with Case Studyo. Here the artist has produced three masks by bringing the geometricized features of his painted poodles into three dimensions. Wood, fabric and metal harden their expressions into objects with an almost ritualistic aura, such is their similarity with ‘primitive objects’ that have been a point of fascination for many artists identified with Cubist and Surrealist traditions. Kamijo has tapped into a rich stream with these incantanatory and mighty beasts.
Susumu Kamijo was born in Nagano Japan in 1975 and is currently based in Brooklyn, NY. Recent solo presentations include Harper’s, East Hampton, New York (2021, 2018); Jack Hanley, New York City (2022, 2020); Maki Gallery, Tokyo, (2021, 2018); and Marvin Gardens, Ridgewood, NY (2020, 2016). This is his second exhibition with Stems after a presentation of his work at the gallery in 2019.
Text written by Danny Kopel