Installation image of Susumu Kamijo: Jack and Venus. Courtesy of the artist and Venus Over Manhattan.
By Kristen Tauer
“I’m striving to make paintings that people can look at for a long time,” says Susumu Kamijo, surveying his new series of abstract poodles and birds on view at Venus Over Manhattan. “And not just be decoration on the wall.”
There isn’t a vertically oriented work in sight at the gallery: everything is horizontal, a distinct choice that marks a shift in Kamijo’s practice. “This is an over-the-couch painting show,” he concedes.
Rotating the canvas 90 degrees from a portrait orientation, he’s opened up a different conversation within his work. Painting on the horizontal line has brought a different energetic quality to his compositions, one that he describes as being more painterly than before.
“I can’t really pinpoint what changed — but something changed between vertical and horizontal,” he adds.
The Brooklyn, New York-based artist has concurrent solo exhibitions in New York at Venus Over Manhattan’s downtown location and the Jack Hanley Gallery, collectively titled “Jack & Venus.” At Venus Over Manhattan, the 11 paintings on view showcase new intentions in the artist’s practice. Kamijo is known for his colorful, graphic depiction of poodles — but he’s working to dismantle that association. He doesn’t want to be known as a “dog painter” for the rest of his career.
“I like my dog, you know? But I’m not an animal activist,” he says.
Kamijo began painting poodles nearly 10 years ago, early in his relationship with his now-wife, a professional pet-groomer and owner of two dogs. The artist accompanied her to dog grooming competitions, sketching the poodles in his vicinity to pass the time. He included a few of those drawings in a show in the mid-2010s, and they resonated with well-heeled dog lovers.
Kamijo’s paintings have veered further from depicting poodles in their correct competition proportions. The poodles are increasingly abstracted to the point that they are often unrecognizable. In October, Perrotin exhibited a new work by the artist during Frieze London and Paris+, which sold for $130,000 — a show of support for Kamijo’s inclination toward abstraction. (Earlier this year, Perrotin Seoul mounted the first solo exhibition of his work in South Korea.) The artist continues to garner attention within the wider art community and is guiding the conversation away from reductive descriptions of his work as “colorful and cute.”
In addition to changing the orientation of his canvas, Kamijo’s newest paintings introduce additional subjects, including flowers and trees, into the conversation. At Venus Over Manhattan, that subject is birds, featured in each canvas alongside abstract canines; the series is rooted in the relationships and tensions that emerge. Sometimes the relationship is peaceful indifference — birds flying overhead — and in another piece, the bird is being consumed by the poodle.
Each painting begins as a sketch and is transformed on the canvas in unexpected ways: drips will emanate from a gestural brush line, which Kamijo leaves as they appear. He cares less about figuring out the narrative of why the birds are being eaten and more about the marks, shapes and colors that create the scene. A small circle, depicting a moon or sun, looms in the background and creates a sense of energetic symmetry.
The works are painted on beige canvas, which evokes a sense of painting on paper. As a child, Kamijo’s parents forced him to take Japanese and Chinese calligraphy lessons. “I was doing it for years and I got good at it, even though I hated it. So I think somewhere in my subconscious the practice was in there,” he says. “Calligraphy is all about balance and the depiction of words and lines. And I think it has a lot to do with my painting.”
Both New York exhibitions are on view through mid-November. Around that same time, Kamijo will have work included in a group gallery show in Las Vegas, Nevada, opening inside a former Greyhound bus station.
“I’m excited about going to Vegas. I hope I don’t lose too much money gambling,” says Kamijo, adding that his life as an artist is enough of a gamble. “Sometimes you walk into the studio, you do amazing stuff, and you’re like ‘Wow. I hit the jackpot there.’”