Miya Ando’s best painting in Kumo (Cloud), her solo show at American University, hangs over the front desk. It’s a heavy-metal Mark Rothko, an atmospheric horizon painted on aluminum. This gun-metal landscape won’t lull viewers in with promises of a retreat into the sublime; it’s a full-frontal reality check, a rejection of all that warm abstract woo-woo rendered in sapphire tones. Even its placement seems like an effort to lure viewers in, only to tell them off.
Aggressive, cerebral, and (seemingly) cold to the touch, Ando’s work grapples with old ideas using new technology. The focal point of the exhibit is “Kumo (Cloud)” (2018), a series of clouds rendered through laser etching on glass panels. This and every other work on display is a jumble of provocations: photography as sculpture, realism as abstraction, photography as painting, and more. Except for the cutting-edge technology, which the artist uses to create the impression of a photograph taken directly on glass, there’s no single idea to support the work that hasn’t been tested over the last 40 years.
Ando’s work is bound to be divisive. Some viewers will fall absolutely—and helplessly—for pieces such as “Mokume Gane (Wood Grain Metal)” (2018), a sequence of silver nitrate paintings on wood panels. Or are they photographs? They look like plates of luminous metal, oxidized by some exotic method, or maybe cross sections of petrified wood. They’re sumptuous tricks for the eye, a treat for viewers who love to be deceived.
Others will stare right through a piece such as “Kumo (Cloud)” (2017) and wonder where the work is. The piece is an installation: In a corner that’s been painted black, the artist has erected a plate of glass like a screen. It’s laser-etched with another cloud. A cloud: the barest landscape gesture. A cloud: a challenge for depicting a real thing using abstract brushstrokes. A cloud: an arbitrary symbol for showing how one medium can stand in as another. Sign, signification, and process, all chapter headings from the history of art since World War II.
Ando’s trying to have it both ways: as a painter who loves her landscapes, and as a modernist who finds the form useful. In one piece, she appears to let down her guard. “Tasogare (Dusk)” (2018), viewed just from the side, shows the pigment of the surface condensed into little.
At American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center to May 27. 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW. Free. (202) 885-3668. american.edu/cas/museum.