In Chie Fueki’s portraits, the auras and energies emanating from the individuals are mesmerizing, a fantastic probe of a deeper understanding of one’s self as an aggregate of their environment, interests, identities and their interactions with a physical world. Personality tests, zodiac charts and quizzes about being introverted or extroverted might be revealing to some and nonsensical for others. But, there also are photographers and painters such as Fueki, who works with many different motifs in her art, that create complex, rich portraits either showing how one’s inner energies and auras evolve and morph with their experiences or auras that are set and constant. In some instances, they are clear while in others, the individual appears absorbed in complex, dense networks indicating many potential points for intersecting moods, vibes and energies.
A finely curated exhibition of some of Fueki’s portraits as well as examples of her more recent work portraying interior settings without figures is up through Jan. 6 at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art (UMOCA) in downtown Salt Lake City. Currently based in New York’s Hudson River Valley, Fueki, who was born in Japan and raised in Brazil, received the 2023 Catherine Doctorow Prize for Contemporary Painting. The prize, which has been awarded every two years since 2011, is supported by the Doctorow Foundation. Fueki also received a $15,000 unrestricted cash award.
With an ingenious cosmopolitan creative language that melds media of painting styles, drawing, cutting and collage, the works in the show cover the period since 2017. These works, created on wood panels, reveal ornamental surfaces and sectors and vectors of colors, to capture the individual’s energies in their distinctive environments. The number of works in the show is small enough for viewers to take enough time to study and absorb each one, and to appreciate the rich complex spectrum of Fueki’s creative multilingual vocabulary.
Catherine (2021) contains plenty of elements to alert the scrutinizing viewer that the car-driving figure is that of Catherine Murphy, a painter who was important as a Yale professor during Fueki’s formative college education and is now a friend and colleague. In a 2021 Hyperallergic feature, John Yau wrote about Murphy, the subject in Fueki’s work: “The most important is that she does not use a one-to-one scale to paint what she sees. Rather than adhering to this formula, which has been a mainstay of painting from life, she enlarges the scale, with the two largest paintings in the current exhibition measuring five-by-five feet square. By squaring everything up, she enhances the relationship between seeing and subject matter.” Fueki pays spot-on tribute to these points in Catherine. For example, the appearance of “CATHY,” written backwards, references a painting that Murphy completed more than 20 years ago.
Likewise, we do not see the face of the figure in Kyle (High Fidelity). Kyle, dressed in jeans and Nike sneakers, is seen, sitting with his headphones. Music is the inspiration for his luminescence. The one figure where the image of the individual’s face is clear comes in finally Bridget, also from 2021, a portrait of one of Fueki’s friends who completed the gender transitioning process. But, note the image which the viewer receives is Bridget’s reflection. One of the most striking representations of auras and energies is in Josh (Energy Version (Solar Eclipse (Up Up Up))), 2021.
While Fueki’s approach might seem, at first glance, almost overwhelming in its complexity, she achieves a remarkable sense of cogency and clarity, given how she deftly works with multiple counterpoints that include references to pointillism, Japanese and American cultural motifs, collage and other forms of mixed media. This includes ukiyo-e, the woodblock print form, which translates as “images of the floating world.” Japanese artists had resurrected the production elements of the Edo past, including thick mulberry paper and rich mineral pigments, special features such as embossing and mica backgrounds, and an emphasis on texture techniques, such as the swirling movement of the rubbing tool known as the baren.
This has become important in appreciating the process behind Fueki’s landscape works, often without figures being present. It is prominent in Mountain Altar. The inaugural recipient of the 2021 Joan Mitchell Fellowship, Fueki described the provenance of the work, which was inspired during the pandemic, in an interview published at the foundation’s website.
Fueki explained that from her Beacon, New York apartment in Hudson Valley with its boxy interior, she had a beautifully framed window view of Mount Beacon and the surrounding valley. The initial impetus for Mountain Altar came from her acknowledgment of this particular vantage, which also was evident in a painting of the mountain by a painter from the Hudson Valley River School that she came across. “At first, I thought, ‘wow, I should make a landscape painting since that’s what I’m looking out at,’” she said in the interview. “But then I realized that making a painting of what I’m seeing out of my window just did not really work for the way I think about things. So I decided to frame the view of the window with two giant black ribbons that kind of acted like a curtain or a quotation mark.”
The use of ribbons is an ornamental addition that Fueki has turned to throughout her career but also, in keeping with the auras and energies of the portraits, she wanted to consider the fluid nature of the landscape portrayal. She created a ribbon installation in her apartment. Again, from the published interview: “I wanted to quote the view itself because landscape paintings—or any paintings—could be traditionally thought to be like a window.”
But, it was the core concept of ukiyo-e, as images of a “floating world,” which has made Fueki’s landscape paintings the perfect complement to the portraits in the UMOCA show. They expand the concept of organic perspectives where one can contemplate the auras and energies of place with the same clear appreciation of those emanating from the individuals whom Fueki honors in her portraits.
For more information about the exhibition and other museum events, see the UMOCA website.