Detail, Zip: 01.01.03 . . . 01.31.03, 2003, mixed media in cigarette pack cellophane wrappers on wood backed acrylic shelf, latex paint, 26 1/2 x 34 1/4 x 5 1/4 inches, courtesy of the artist and the Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York; photo: Stephen Faught
Not only is the work unique, it is unquestionably some of the best art being made today; which is interesting, of course, because Agematsu’s fabulous tiny sculptures are actually made of…trash.
Since the 1980s, he has been taking daily, dedicated walks in different New York City neighborhoods, collecting select items of debris and initially putting them into a zip-lock bag. After 1995, he replaced the plastic bag with the cellophane wrapper from his cigarette packs. Collected items include chewed gum, lollipop sticks, condoms, cigarette butts, wire, stones, hair, string, fragments of paper, twigs and leaves. The walk and the collected junk were then meticulously recorded in small notebooks, one for each month, a facsimile of which a collector gets upon acquiring a piece.
Detail, Ziploc: 12.01.95 . . . 12.31.95, 1995, mixed media in Ziploc bags (31 units), magnets, oil pen, on steel, 29 1/2 x 31 x 1 3/8 inches, courtesy of the artist and the Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York; photo: Stephen Faught
Generally, Agematsu assembles his findings into miniature sculptures shortly after collecting them, laboriously gluing his “treasures” together and into the cellophane, thus transforming the mundane and unwanted into the most fantastical compositions, and breathing new life into discarded and decaying material. Sometimes his individual pieces suggest landscape; other times they are anthropomorphic, or resemble miniature still-lifes. They can be witty, comical, peaceful, tired, sad, unsettling, or tragic.
Since Agematsu initially rarely exhibited, there was no prescribed way for displaying the work, although it was always presented in calendar increments of a month or a year, but on any kind of shelving. In the last few years, the work has been displayed on plexiglas shelves, each unit representing a month and the works arranged in a calendar configuration. The earlier work in zip-lock bags is mounted on a metallic plate and held in place with tiny magnets that match the precociousness of the art itself.
Detail, Zip: 01.01.03 . . . 01.31.03, 2003, mixed media in cigarette pack cellophane wrappers (31 units) on wood backed acrylic shelf, latex paint, 26 1/2 x 34 1/4 x 5 1/4 inches, courtesy of the artist and the Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York; photo: Stephen Faught
Everything about his art has the delicacy of a bonsai. When one buys a work, for example, the days of the month, each in its cellophane containers, are neatly laid out in a box resembling a large shoebox, with an empty cigarette pack separating and protecting them.
Agematsu, who lives in Brooklyn, is 62 and essentially an untrained artist. He came to the States during the 1980s from Japan, where he was born. But as mentioned before, he did not show his work with any regularity…until about 2015. Each succeeding year has resulted in an enormous jump in the number of exhibitions, and thusly also his acclaim.
His breakout show was the group exhibition The Keeper, at the New Museum for Contemporary Art in New York in 2016. He and Helma af Klint were perhaps the most talked-about artists in that groundbreaking show. In 2018 he had a solo exhibition at the prestigious Power Station in Dallas. And also in 2018, he had an entire year displayed at the Carnegie International, 57th Edition. His current show at Miguel Abreu is titled 1995 & 2003, because each of those years is presented in its entirety – 1995 with zip-lock months, and 2003 with cigarette-pack-cellophane months.
Yuji Agematsu, 1995 & 2003, is currently on view at the Miguel Abreu Gallery, 88 Eldridge Street, New York, until June 21.