Sush Machida: 20 Years In Vegas
20 Years in Vegas
Through April 27, 2019 at The Studio, Sahara West Library, Las Vegas
by D.K. Sole
How often do we see a Las Vegas artist treated to a retrospective? This is an important question: retrospectives are proof of history. Perhaps we never knew the history was there; maybe we felt it on a quiet, almost subconscious level but we had no proof. Now we have proof and the history is laid out in front of us. Las Vegas art history! There it is! Look! Thank you LVCCLD, Darren Johnson, and your team of one other person, for shining a little light here.
Sush Machida: 20 Years in Vegas is leaner than the Robert Beckmann retrospective that took place at the same venue in 2017. This is satisfying in some ways and makes you hungrier in others. I’ll go into the satisfaction first. The uncluttered nearly-chronological clarity means you end up conducting research almost without meaning to. How far back do those cartoon joybirds go, the ones we’ve seen flying around his wave paintings over the past ten years? Back to 2004 at least, because there they are in a horizontal canvas above a katana sporting a Chanel logo. Their eyes were red back then, like smouldering bowling balls, but it’s still them. The cigarettes and bananas that sit on the surfaces of his images like stickers in the 2000s, did they really get drowned by the waves as the gallery layout suggests?
The katana’s Chanel returns four years later in Innocence, 2008, but this time it is not the logo; instead he has painted an entire bottle of Chanel No. 5 and a label. In Enter the Dragon, 2013, the label reappears but now the text is gone and it is a dark-edged white rectangle interrupting a set of rounded clouds near the dragon of the title. Pinks and yellows from the surrounding scenery are misting into it a little. Here is the power of a retrospective. It would not have occurred to me to connect the bottle to the rectangle if the paintings were not virtually next to one another.
Nor would it have occurred to me that the rectangle was part of a long playfulness around that sticker-idea, the ability of things to superimpose themselves on top of other things. Do I talk about this shape in the same breath as the cigarettes and bananas, or can I look at it as a part of a debate with the aspirational profundity of Malevich’s Black Square, 1915, or can I get playful as well and suggest that it is a comment on the role of rectangular niches in Japanese domestic architecture – tokonoma, a place to display art, which would turn Dragon into a piece of art with its own art-display space standing almost empty inside it, and maybe – if you wanted to go ridiculously far – you could argue that the picture was discussing or questioning its own worthiness, saying, with this colour-stained tokonoma (or maybe it’s a framed canvas?), “Don’t trust that noisy dragon illustration when the true artspace in front of you chooses to hallow this delicate indeterminate mist.”
However you look at it, the artist has hinted at his power to superimpose a real emptiness over the full spectacle of a coiling monster, fighter jets, and drama. Elsewhere he proves he can make creations out of nothing: he sticks a heart on a tiger’s face and like magic a different body part appears. “Nose,” you say. But it doesn’t grow into the face; it doesn’t even have the good manners to cast a shadow across the muzzle. He has that power to make you name things that aren’t there or take away the things that are. He may be suggesting that life itself is like this. Look at his predilection for making objects flit or swim or hover. Not for nothing did Catherine Swift, a Marjorie Barrick Museum intern, look at one of his paintings in the museum’s collection (Tiger, 2007) and begin to write about the concept of ukiyo: “the floating world.” The word that sticks in my mind there is “floating.” “Is there any point of the environment,” his canvases ask, “that can’t be unfixed?”
Maybe that should make us more questioning about what he reveals. We know he is Japanese, for instance. He lets that be obvious. Look at the katana, look at the Ultraman knock-off in the earliest painting in the show, Ultra Masochist Love Me More, 2001. Look at his wave paintings. In this show they begin with Morning Delight in 2009. “We all know you remember that one Hokusai print,” they murmur. “It’s world famous. So here are miles of Japanese waves. See how those lobster claw shapes echo Hokusai’s foam?” But he is not amorphously “Japanese,” he is from the city of Maebashi in Gunma Prefecture. Where in his work is Maebashi? Would we recognise it if we saw it? Is it profoundly, subtly inherent in everything here? He lives in Las Vegas. Where in his work is Las Vegas? Was it only in the very early works – ones that came before Ultra Masochist – like the porno cityscape, Evolution 4:00 A.M., 2000 (and are those glued-on 4:00 A.M. nudes the ancestors of his ‘stickers’?)? Is it the fact that some of his lines resemble neon tubes? In 20 Years we see notions of the specific gestured at by the presence of dots. What is not there in his waves? The core of the Hokusai picture: Mt Fuji.
“These waves aren’t even waves,” you mutter, “they’re the lines that make up a fish’s mouth in Underground Café Pink, 2007.” Thanks to the lovely retrospective of magic knowledge you can watch his lines develop around the walls of the gallery from the days of Ultra Masochist, when it was a basic matter of either tracing around a painted form or leaving it as an unbounded fuzz. This looks like a pioneering version of things being there or not being there. Colour in those days dominated the image, covering space and setting boundaries. By the time we reach Morning Delight the importance has been equalled. The hue moves across the background on its own while the lines are left to define the idea of the landscape. “There are no waves there,” I said. And this no-thing-ness continues into his recent plank works, which have no planks. The disrespect he showed you with his snowflake anus in Ultra Masochist didn’t vanish, it got pictorially sublimated.
What about “hungrier”? Well, you wish there was a catalogue. (“Like we have the setup to develop art catalogues,” sighs LVCCLD.) A catalogue essay might point back to my bit about the lobster waves and say smartly, “Look, he likes fishing, he stares at waves on Lake Mead a lot, stop this Hokusai nonsense.” You wish there was something exploring his context among his peers, and something about his murals. What about skateboarding? You could complicate his love of long, thin surfaces by pointing out that these are not only the dimensions of a Japanese scroll but also the dimensions of a skateboard. Skateboarding, he has said, along with fishing and snowboarding, was one of the reasons he migrated to the United States. On one hand you are grateful for the working drawings; on the other hand you want more than two.
These are thoughts I would never have had if this exhibition did not exist. Now that I see it, I begin to picture everything else. Did I ever wish I could see more working drawings by Sush Machida before I walked into this exhibition? No. Then 20 Years in Vegas is exactly what it should be.
20 Years in Vegas
Through April 27, 2019
The Studio, Sahara West Library, 9600 W. Sahara Ave, Las Vegas, NV, 89117
All photos courtesy Darren Johnson, Las Vegas Clark County Library District
Australian artist D.K. Sole lives in Las Vegas, Nevada, and works at the UNLV Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art where she is in charge of Research and Educational Engagement. She has exhibited in Las Vegas and Denver, Colorado.