Sublimation is a chemical process that occurs when a solid becomes a vapor under extreme heat. True to its name, walking into Shoichi Seino's solo show at Don Soker Contemporary Art will make you feel as though something extremely flammable and fragile has just burned up, too quickly for you to see it. It will snatch your breath away.
Sublimating is the work of a master minimalist. Seino has been practicing for decades, and his inclination toward site-specific installation is apparent, although this show was not conceived as such. There are only fourteen pieces total: two sets of small, wobbly black pillars placed on low, wooden pedestals and ten wall pieces, most of which hang on the same wall. None of the pieces are particularly large. The work could easily have been lost in the vastness of Soker's new space -- a recently gutted series of office suites -- but instead the art controls its surroundings, forcing you to see its echoes in the traces left by the gallery's recent occupants. Next to Seino's works, a leftover stripe of paint along the wall or even the drag marks of furniture across the floor take on significance.
From a distance, the wall pieces -- simply titled "Works 1 - 10" -- look like paintings. Daubs of neutral colors like beige, slate grey, cream, rust, and taupe float against gridded backgrounds. The illusion of flat canvases covered with paint breaks down as you approach, however. Each work is made up of a grid of industrial ceramic filters that Seino has treated with various glazes and re-fired. Up close, they are shockingly organic and infinitely deep: feathery, with the texture of coral.
The four pillars -- titled "Sublimating 1 - 4" -- are also made of an industrial-grade ceramic, a specific type of graphite able to be machined and fired at extreme temperatures, and usually used for making things like linings for nuclear reactors or nose cones for space shuttles. Seino's pillars look ancient, like the weathered remnants of ceremonial markers. Deep black and rough in texture, it's easy to anthropomorphize them. Each installed set looks like two beings facing off.
Faced with Seino's transformed materials (industrial-grade graphite and sublimation filters), it's difficult to miss the psychological implications of the show's title. Beyond its scientific definition, sublimation occurs when energy from one set of impulses is diverted to other, arguably more acceptable ones. What's on view here is the fragility and ephemerality of life itself, and the power art has to affect it.
Sublimating is on view at Don Soker Contemporary Art in San Francisco through July 31, 2010.