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Naoto Nakagawa Q&A

Naoto Nakagawa’s early work investigated the nature of things, the psychological baggage that we so willingly let our common household items carry. This led to years of contrived still life paintings full of socio-sexual, art & culture references that later developed into nature paintings, the environment that holds our things. Since the 90s, the titles of each of the series of nature paintings - Song of the Earth, Forest of Eden, and most recently, Earth Wave - exhibit the artist’s move through various examinations of how the big thing, life and death, inextricably feed off each other.

In the Earth Wave paintings, the artist has added a compositional device, transparent concentric rectangles - frames, portals, layers, time lapses, geometry: man made things - that disrupt yet also concentrate his images of the natural world. And while the palette is pumped up, it is also limited and used as a way to graduate and spatially define the territory of each the concentric rectangles. Layering and intersecting the representation of flowers and foliage, they create a push and pull, if not a pulsing, that leads us into the central focus of the painting, the center of a flower which in its representation moves swiftly from vegetation to gender to the erotic core that is life and death.

Naoto Nakagawa was bone in Kobe, Japan in 1944, and though he had the good fortune to be born into a family of artists, architects, and poets, and as well to experience many of the adventurous activities of the Gutai movement, at the age of 18 he eagerly boarded a freighter ship, along with the photojournalist Eugene W. Smith,  bound for NYC, USA, and has lived here since. He attended Osaka Art University 1961-62, Brooklyn Museum Art School 1963-65, and has  exhibited with Ethan Cohen Fine Arts, Victoria Munroe Fine Arts, and O.K. Harris Gallery in New York City and with Tamada Projects and Fuji Television Gallery in Tokyo. We are delighted to present this exhibition of Naoto Nakagawa’s Earth Wave paintings, his first solo exhibition with Feature Inc.

Q&A 04.05.11

.do you take a lot of nature photographs as source material for your work? how do you use them?
I have a large collection of nature photographs that I’ve taken over the years, mostly in the Hudson River Valley. I also make a lot of nature drawings. So when I’m inspired to paint I have this vast selection of materials to choose from and to work with.

.why have you chosen to reduce and generalize your color, as if moving towards a monochrome, yet also enhance or pump it up?
I use the concentric rectangles format so that each section has its own freedom to be monochromatic. It frees me because each space is like its own room or chamber, so the painting doesn’t have to be a typical landscape painting. With a landscape, the choice of colors obliges the viewer to see it as seasonal nature—such as spring or fall—which I want to avoid. What I’m trying to get at is something like the spirit of nature, the incredible creation of the organic forms that contribute to my view of the world. The colors always move from outer darkness toward the center, from darkness to light, or from light to dark, from the center out. In the process, the contrast is very important, so I use very high-key colors.

.are your color choices based on formal decisions—a theory about how colors work and what they mean? why have you made these choices?
I am always aware of formal color theory, but I avoid that, because color is personal, emotional, and has its own consciousness. So it’s a mixture of personal and formal decisions that I go through. Also, as I have said earlier, the format that I’ve chosen moves from the outer edge of the canvas, which is dark—black or dark blue—toward the center, gaining light and brightness, going from cool to warm colors. Paintings are organized by the visual contrast of forms, shapes and colors. For example, the dark blue or black: to me it reflects the void, the universe, nothingness, when everything is still. As I move toward brighter colors, they begin to express and give light to the shapes and forms of nature.

.why the consistent centralized subject matter?
This is the most interesting question for me. Throughout my fifty years of being an artist, my central concern has been the relationship between man and nature. In my early paintings from the ’70s, man was represented by man-made objects, such as hammers, brushes, scissors, or combs, juxtaposed with organic forms such as insects or reptiles. So, for example, in one painting, a pair of pliers transforms into the head of a lizard. It has a kind of comical character, a caricature of man and nature.
 In the last twenty years I have focused more on nature. But within nature, man is always present. Because the interaction between man and nature is very important to me, what I paint is Nature’s body in its most naked form. I want to paint Nature’s body (the human body) in the most direct and naked way, so most of my paintings are composed with a central focus. I am really bringing my subject matter under the full glare of the sun.

.what is the function of the concentric rectangles? for me, they sometimes feel like layers of magnification, or lapses of time, or simply the peeling away of layers.
The concentric rectangles create separate individual chambers that afford me the opportunity to create a particular kind of world which is fractured or separated or united; I can choose to peel away layers of creation or create a completely different world within the painting. It gives me the freedom to create a chamber connecting to the next stage, or disconnecting, or fractured space. It also suggests a time lapse.

.while there is a sense of celebration in these paintings there is as well the funereal. is this body of work focused on the playing out of the drama of sex of death?
Sex today is very open and to me it has become a very pop subject. My images go from dark to bright, or bright to dark, appearing, disappearing, fracturing continuity—this is all about the world in which we must function. As I mentioned, I’m bringing Nature’s body, the human body, to the very forefront of the painting. Inevitably, I chose a flower, and a flower being the most sexual expression of nature, of course I’m saying something about sex. As soon as we say sex, or life, death is somewhere behind it. They are two sides of the same coin.  Sometimes you see insects, like honeybees, in my paintings, attracted to the sex of nature, and there’s a drama being played out.

.it seems that as this body of work has developed, you have become increasingly interested in light.
Yes. As I become aware of my own mortality, and that awareness increases, it counter-develops to intensify the light. So yes, the contrast has become much more fierce and much more energized between these two opposing poles. But death and life are neither negative nor positive; it is a process of evolution, and to me, the light symbolizes this brief life that we are given, our destiny.

.though you have lived in the new york art world for 40-something years, how do you feel that this body of work has been influenced by your early experiences of the traditional and avant-garde art of Japan?
I grew up during a culturally vibrant and exciting time in Japan. There were three art magazines that informed us in great detail about what was happening in the art movements of Europe and America, and I was very aware of them. Also, museums were constantly exhibiting modern and contemporary art from Europe as well as America. The environment in my family was a very traditional, learned atmosphere. There were great painters, great poets, and architects in my family. I was painting 2 or 3 paintings a day. I grew up in the Osaka – Kobe area, where, in 1954, a great avant-garde movement called Gutai had emerged. It was internationally acclaimed, and attracted the attention of people like John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg. (In 2013 the Guggenheim will be major Gutai show.) Gutai members were creating happenings, installations, and conceptual work in theaters and outdoors; they were using fire, smoke, water. Their motto was never to imitate or repeat what had been created in the past. My mentor, Joji Kikunami, was a Gutai member, and my neighbor, Sadamasa Motonaga, was making extraordinary Gutai work, and I used to visit their houses daily. What I was taught by the Gutai members is that you can break the rules, but make sure that you can back it up. So I have two sides inside me, one very traditional, appreciating the literati approach, and the other an absolute risk taker.

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