Between Force and Fragility
Lydia Okumura and the gendered nuances of Minimalist sculpture
When writing about sculpture, critics often use inadvertently masculine vernacular, expending such terms as “dominant” or “forceful” in describing a work’s construction and effect. While feminist scholars are right to point out how such terminology perpetuates art history’s highly patriarchal cannon, it’s perhaps also uncommon to connote femininity with steel, wire and aluminum sculptures. Additionally, modern sculpture’s use of industrial materials evokes a decidedly romantic notion of masculine middle class labor, one that artists like Jackson Pollock and Carl Andre used to posit themselves as the artistic “everyman.” This is why, perhaps more so than any other artistic medium, sculpture is wrought with gendered nuances and contradictions.
Lydia Okumura’s Situations, now on view at Weber State University’s Shaw Gallery, is a breathtaking exhibition that concentrates the artist’s 50-plus-year career in modest but powerful form. In her first exhibition west of the Mississippi, Situations debuts a remarkable assortment of sculptures and works on paper from throughout the artist’s career. The visual magnificence of Okumura’s work is blinding, effectively demolishing any remnant of gender, race or nationality.
Born to a Japanese immigrant family in São Paulo, Brazil, Okumura is much less known in the United States — where she has maintained a studio in New York City for decades — than in her native Brazil. The exhibit is the curatorial accomplishment of Rachel Adams, senior curator of exhibitions at the University of Buffalo (UB). “I came across Lydia’s work in March 2015…when my good friend and curator Jennie Lamensforf sent me a picture of ‘Untitled I’ from 1981, a blue corner piece [that] was on view at the Independent Fair in NYC at her gallery’s booth,” Adams recounts. After seeing the image, Adams “immediately looked up Lydia’s work and fell into an Internet wormhole-trying to find out as much as I could about her and her work. It just spoke to me so strongly,” she says.
After moving to New York in 1974, Okumura labored intensely on her craft while simultaneously working as a freelance interpreter and a translator for the United Nations. Following a prolonged experimentation with largely monochromatic pieces, she began incorporating color into her works starting in the 1990s. While Okumura has enjoyed a number of solo and group exhibitions in New York, Brazil and Japan, the UB show marks the artist’s first solo museum exhibition.
Her use of materials was at least initially fueled by mere necessity. Living and working in a small studio in New York City, she used found materials and experimented with ideas through elaborate sketches, hoping to be afforded the spatial luxury of transforming these works into three-dimensional sculptures. What may have begun as preparatory sketches eventually became works of art in their own right, capturing both the artist’s elaborate thought process and the visual dynamism of her mark making. By reconstructing works from her storied career, Situations captures Okumura’s methodical obsession with geometric forms, namely the combination between crisp line and bold color.
Emblematic of her accomplishments is “Labyrinth,” first realized at Museu de Arte Moderna, São Paulo, in 1984. It is a colossal, multicolored sculpture that stands valiantly tall and is coiled on either end. Forged from stainless-steel wire mesh and acrylic paint, the translucent material allows one to both see through it and walk within it, creating a beautifully transcendental experience. It is perhaps this ethereal quality that denotes a certain femininity to her work, which serves as a stark contrast to the brute solidity of a stereotypically masculine work such as Richard Serra’s weathering steel “Torques Spiral.”
Elsewhere in the exhibition, visitors encounter Okumura’s conceptual geometric experiments. “Different Dimensions of Reality II,” from 1972, is an installation of nine powder-coated aluminum plates combined with acrylic paint. Configured in an inverted “T” shape, the series calls to mind Sol LeWitt’s “Incomplete Open Cubes” of 1974, which, however, it predates by two years. The works utilize the muted tones Okumura incorporates in many of her two-dimensional works, which serve as a starkly attractive backdrop atop which subtle black shapes are placed.
Similarly, the inclusion of brightly colored planes gives the triptych “Diagram of Dimensions A, B, C,” (gouache and pencil on paper, 1978), a passionate intensity in otherwise meticulous geometric exercises. These exercises are studies for larger works that often use two-dimensional drawings to highlight the implied volume in a space — in a piece like “PS1,” from 1980, Okumura transfers these drawings to the corner of an exhibition space, where, seen from the correct angle, like the skull in Holbein’s “Ambassadors,” they create a mental sense of massive volume, both solid and transparent.
Viewers are likely to enjoy the glass piece “In Front of Light,” first constructed at the International Biennial of Sao Paulo in 1977. The work’s optical intersections of glass planes held together by long strings are dizzying, making it nearly impossible for one’s eye to depart.
Okumura’s work presents an aesthetically tantalizing contradiction between force and fragility. With this in mind, Okumura’s placement within, or, rather, a critical and unjust absence from the Minimalist movement becomes apparent. Her conceptual geometric experiments rival her cross-national contemporaries and deserve additional critical exploration and adulation.