at the Chicago Cultural Center

Who has twisted us around like this, so that / no matter what we do, we are in the posture / of someone going away? Just as, upon / the farthest hill, which shows him his whole valley / one last time, he turns, stops, lingers–, / so we live here, forever taking leave. –from the “Eighth Duino Elegy” by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Stephen Mitchell

As I thought about Risa Sekiguchi’s paintings, I turned instinctively to Rilke. In his poetry he sought to express the inexpressible–or at least his longing to do so–and Sekiguchi’s paintings take up the same task. Both artists explore the problem of separation, of perpetually being neither one thing nor another, of never quite being at home.

The subjects of the 16 small, untitled paintings in Sekiguchi’s current show at the Chicago Cultural Center are, on the surface, nothing out of the ordinary–simple still-life arrangements, and solitary figures in interiors or landscapes. But many of them are charged by the strange, unreal quality of early evening light and by its function as a signifier for states of transition or emotional upheaval. One painting, for example, presents a dark red sky filled with heavy black clouds massed above a low horizon. Placed against this dramatic evening sky is a standing nude figure, seen from the side and painted, unexpectedly, in dark shades of green. This isolated figure appears to embrace a blue black shadow that is only half present: the shadow has arms that embrace in return, but the rest of its body fades into darkness. A strong sense of painful separation, of closeness lost and longed for, is conveyed by this twilight scene.

A lesser artist might approach such an emotionally charged subject with more obvious means–monumental scale, highly saturated color, or exaggerated impasto. But Sekiguchi opts for restraint. The extremely small scale she employs (few of the paintings exceed 12 inches in height or width) fosters intimacy; so do the tiny but active brush strokes that enliven her surfaces. And her colors are generally subdued, darkened by layers of colored glazes that veil forms. As a result, our relationship to Sekiguchi’s paintings is not unlike that of her solitary figure to its mysterious shadow partner–we are simultaneously drawn to and separated from her images.

The peculiarly modern condition of alienation from both God and nature is treated in several of Sekiguchi’s paintings, in which lone figures float helplessly in the sky, far above vast landscapes. In one, we are presented with an aerial view of a low-lying landscape, distant mountains, and a cloudy, dark red sky. At the center of the sky, a figure, bent at the waist and waving its arms, is frozen in midair. Above it Sekiguchi has lightly scratched vertical lines in the wet paint, further emphasizing movement. Though the figure is not specific in terms of gender or race, it is far from lifeless: light pools on the shoulders and arms, for example, convincingly revealing their tension. The bent figure can be read as either falling into or being torn away from the immense, far-off landscape. It is clearly caught between one place and another; Sekiguchi leaves the interpretation of that state up to the viewer.

The massing clouds in several of Sekiguchi’s paintings have a precedent in the agitated, cloud-filled skies of El Greco. Reminiscent of El Greco as well are the quietly expressive gestures of Sekiguchi’s figures. Sometimes their meaning is unmistakable: a woman, hands pressed against her abdomen, tensely clutching the fabric of her long veil, is clearly caught in a moment of grief. At other times a figure’s movements are indecipherable. In one painting, for example, a nude woman, her back to the viewer, has no less than six arms–some are raised to her head, some are bent, hands cupped, and one hangs at her side. She appears to be engaged in a lively but private dialogue with the river and distant trees before her. Adding to the mystery are yellow and white clouds that appear to simultaneously converge on the woman’s head and rise from it like smoke. Sekiguchi gives us signs of communication, but not the message itself: the woman and her situation remain fundamentally unknowable.

Sekiguchi’s work also brings Caspar David Friedrich and Edward Hopper to mind. Like Friedrich, she explores relationships between man, nature, and the ineffable. But while Friedrich’s early-19th-century scenes of couples gazing into twilight spaces exude nostalgia, Sekiguchi’s are filled with a very contemporary anxiety. Friedrich’s meticulous renderings of light, sky, and water are stunning, but if I had to choose between the two painters I’d prefer Sekiguchi’s less facile style: her struggle to arrive at the right forms creates a tension that’s entirely appropriate to her subjects.

Her kinship with Hopper is evident in paintings of single figures standing in barren, windowless rooms. Hopper’s light is always sharper and more logical than Sekiguchi’s–the source of the dim, diffuse light in her interior scenes is never quite clear. But common to both painters is a sense of isolation. No matter how familiar and ordinary their surroundings, Hopper’s individuals, whether alone or not, always seem slightly ill at ease, their thoughts turned inward. Sekiguchi’s figures are their descendants, whose spiritual and emotional difficulties are even more acute.

A few of Sekiguchi’s paintings show only partial figures–a torso, an arm–fading in and out of shadows. These surreal scenes are her most disturbing ones, prompting thoughts about physical vulnerability and death. It’s truly a relief to turn from them to the group of four still-life paintings in the show. Each of these has a simple, traditional composition: the relatively active forms of ordinary objects punctuate and enliven the more stable horizontal surface and edges of a tabletop. From an elevated and close-up viewpoint, we see scattered flower petals, bananas, a shallow white bowl placed atop a closed book, and two walnuts on a folded white cloth. But because of Sekiguchi’s rich, deep colors and restless brush strokes, these quiet, Spartan arrangements are no less concentrated or intense in feeling than Sekiguchi’s figurative paintings.

The painting of walnuts, for example, is at first glance completely straightforward. Two nuts, one whole, one broken open, and a few pieces of nut meat are shown resting on a folded purplish white napkin placed on a deep red tablecloth. At the table’s back edge we see only a dark blue band of color, a simple background wall or space. These strong color contrasts draw us in, as does Sekiguchi’s precise yet fluid style. Little by little the seemingly mundane walnuts acquire a commanding presence. We’re shown both their interior and exterior–all is revealed–and yet they seem to harbor a secret, an all-important truth.

I may be ascribing more significance to this painting than Sekiguchi intended. But I’ve found my thoughts returning to it again and again. “Perhaps we are here in order to say: house, / bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window–” Rilke speculates in the “Ninth Duino Elegy.” Then he clarifies: “But to say them, you must understand, / oh to say them more intensely than the Things themselves / ever dreamed of existing.” That’s exactly what Sekiguchi’s still lifes accomplish.

The paintings in this exhibit, all completed during the past two years, are more assured and complex than those I’ve seen in some of Sekiguchi’s previous exhibits. They demonstrate a greater understanding of the human figure and of the expressive role of gesture, and the landscapes in particular use spatial constructions that are far more challenging both compositionally and thematically. Working within fairly traditional formats, Sekiguchi renews the significance of those formats. In the process she proves that figurative painting can still be profoundly moving.