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Keiko Sono at Gallery Side 2

by Monty DiPietro

In the early autumn of 1999, just around harvest time, Keiko Sono slipped behind the wheel of a rented Ford sedan and began a leisurely three-day drive through the American Northwest. There is not a lot to look at in this part of the country: the horizon, where the endless golden wheat fields meet the endless blue skies, is a flat line that runs 360° around to meet itself again. And in this wide open world, Sono stuck a camera out the open window of the car and began photographing.

Back in the hip upstate New York college town of New Paltz (where she lives with her psychotherapist husband and baby daughter, Suika), Sono, 37, set up her easel and began to develop the landscape photographs into oil paintings. "Driveby" is the show that has resulted from the exercise. The exhibition features 14 paintings and a limited edition book of photocopies and ink drawings. It is now up at Gallery Side 2, an independent commercial art space tucked down in a basement near Sendagaya station, on the fringe of Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward.

"I feel pretty American when I’m driving," says Tokyo-born Sono, "like an American immigrant, meaning a real American. I feel that driving in this kind of infinite land is the quintessential American experience. Not just the landscape, but the accessibility and the safety, that’s what the country is all about."

And Sono’s paintings mean to celebrate this. The artist typically (in the new works) runs the horizons down across the lower third of her compositions and lets the cloudless sky fill the rest of the canvas. Here and there one finds shapes and clumps in the distance: rocks, machinery, farmhouses. A vignetting effect caused by the photographic process, which sees the brightness of the sky fade in intensity toward the outside of the negative, has been transferred to the paintings.

Sono says it is the balance between near wildness and the artificiality of crop rows (one side of the road could be green while the other might be golden) which draws her out to farm country. Indeed, some of her best pictures effectively counterpoise the two worlds by depicting a human presence, say in the form of a strip of road in the foreground, with nature, in the form of wild sagebrush or rocks.

Alas, for fairly minimal works most of these paintings are somehow not quite clean enough. And many look a little too labored, or if the artist was pressured to finish them, which is not a feeling one wants to get when looking at pictures taken from a drive in the country. Her new, too-small canvases also lack the nicely-mysterious quality of the paintings Sono did for a group show at the same gallery last year. In these earlier works, the artist treats a wider variety of out-the-window-of-the-car scenes, doing so with more details and in a style that recalls the out-of-focus-photo-style paintings of Gerhard Richter. A few of these pictures are on display in the current exhibition to compliment the new canvases, but really they steal the show.

Still, Sono is smart to be exploring new ways of seeing—in talking with her one finds a serious artist with a refreshingly down-to-earth approach. And she intends to keep on truckin’ too, all the while looking out the window to see what she can find out on in the big country she calls home.

"Who knows," she says, "what’s on the other side of the hill."

Until Apr 26, 2000 at Gallery Side 2 (5771-5263). Pictured is "WA 22, 9.23.1999," oil on paper.

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