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Working to Scale: Photographer Michiko Kon uses piscine materials to create works like 'Goldfish, Toothbrush and Salmon Roe.'

Something Fishy

Photographer Michiko Kon reinvents still lifes at her SJ Museum of Art show

By Ann Elliott Sherman

EXPLORING HER admitted fear of death with the meditative absorption of a child worrying an unhealed wound, Michiko Kon creates photographic tableaux that infuse the term "still life" with renewed meaning.

Working primarily in the black-and-white format of silver gelatin prints, Kon brings her images to the forefront of a dark and shadowy, shallow depth of field. Whether she uses a reflective, minimalist surface or surrounds the object with rich brocades or wildly printed fabric, the ground serves to underscore the texture of her created memento mori.

The seduction of a perfect, dewy rose packs a sudden recoil: a glassy stare from the dead quail's head tucked into the bloom's center, its sharp, reptilian claws where a florist might arrange baby's breath. The fleeting nature of life's fully realized beauty inevitably brings us face-to-face with death.

This attraction/repulsion dynamic is especially pronounced in Kon's painstakingly manipulated compositions incorporating fish parts. There is apparently nothing that she can't fashion out of scales, fins, tentacles or shells, displaying a dexterity that a four-star sushi chef would envy. A cornerstone of the Japanese diet, seafood supplies a ready metaphor for what Kon calls "the close presence of life and death." Simultaneously, the food theme questions everything consumed without a second thought.

Kon's photos are essays in sensory re-education and nature's duality. A natty fedora has a sleek tuna veneer, a fin jauntily tucked into the band. A top hat resting on leopard skin is scalloped with rows and rows of sardine heads. Associations with elegance of a bygone age and Hollywood glamour alternate with an almost palpable aura of slimy, smelly decay.

As further reminder that the clock is ticking, the photo Silk Hat and Sardines also incorporates timepieces. A pocket watch rests front and center in the hatband, but what vies with the hat for attention is a large, off-kilter clock that seems to have slipped off the office or schoolroom wall. Hands frozen just before the fairy-tale hour of midnight, its face is smeared with blood. Like any surrealist worth her salt, Kon likes to play with the collective imagination, tweaking conventions about what is real, what is fiction.

Other photos riff on misogynist myths or traditions. A halved papaya framed by two upended tulips mimics a uterus and ovaries; bridgework embedded in the center's spilling seeds and tacks barricading the fruit suggest a vagina dentata. A fish-skin bento box offers a sampling of vulva-shaped foods, flowers and butterflies, contradicted by collaged religious symbols of virginity.

Often Kon takes clothing--our second skins and social armor--and intricately embellishes it with other consumables or their remnants. Where decidedly feminine apparel is used, Kon puts other topics on the table. In Peas and Dress, a small girl's eyelet dress is given a delicate pinafore of pea pods, each opened to reveal the tender treasure within, a poignant eulogy to a lost innocence. A tutu is given a second layer of fine fish bones threaded with hypodermic needles, lending a threatening undercurrent of destruction, both personal and environmental.

KON'S LINGERIE SERIES brings inanimate feminine stand-ins past childhood to raise sexual connotations. Where Gizzard Shad and Brassiere just places a fish-skin bra in a boudoir setting, Pond Herring and Lingerie hints at fetish, violence and risk, its scaly corset prickling with open safety pins. For a visual metaphor of sex as a messy gamble, the garter belt fashioned from gooey squid tendrils studded with dice is succinct (Firefly Squid, Garter and Halfbeaks).

Kon's shoe photos don't resonate on this multiple frequency. While Cuttlefish and Sneaker's craftsmanship inspires awe (it has to be tough to lace a tentacle), it works primarily on the level of a somber parody of sports apparel marketing: no endorsing hero can run forever.

The shots of high-heeled boots embellished with flowers, crustaceans or fish give fashion photography Kon's trademark twist, but they feel like formal exercises. Whether due to frequent use of women's shoes as a point of departure in contemporary art or early exposure to artsy experiments in Vogue, these photos felt retread, too familiar to "stimulate people's five senses and transfix them." For all the window dressing of mortality, these images stay within the realm of their referenced genre, on the surface of things.

Kon's color photographs are drenched in red. When she employs her usual strategy and covers a hat with a membranous, glistening red "netting," the effect is less a meditative still life than a movie still from a Technicolor gore flick.

Her pieces using mannequin figures also veer toward the mawkishly gothic, especially where child-sized dummies are impaled with nails and lilies and dripped with wax or float face down in a gauze shroud. Unlike Kon's subtler recasting of the conservative still-life tradition, these don't take something mundane, put it in a scrambled context and leave us to decipher the message. Instead, the figurative images translate the stuff of nightmares for us so explicitly, a resentful sense of exploitation and attempted manipulation is hard to avoid.

At its best, Michiko Kon: Still Lifes demonstrates an artist commanding a sophisticated yet visceral aesthetic to confront traditional expectations of beauty that attempt to celebrate life by denying death. More than just wrapping fish skin around an object, she's confessing a terrible fascination many would rather not own up to, let alone dwell upon.

Michiko Kon: Still Lifes runs through Oct. 1 at the San Jose Museum of Art, 110 S. Market St., San Jose. (408.294.2787)

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From the August 17-23, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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