Naoto Nakagawa: A Mona Lisa for Our Time
By JONATHAN GOODMAN, OCT. 2018
Naoto Nakagawa was born in Japan, but he came to New York, “to conquer the city” as he says, more than a half century ago, when he was in his teens. He is fully mature as an artist and is in fact an outstanding historian of New York art life in the mid-1960s and after, both in regard to the artworld’s general circumstances and, more specifically, the work and lives of Asian artists. While he remains a man who deeply identifies with Japanese culture and heritage, at the same time he is a New Yorker who has lived in the city for decades, where he has practiced an art of high independence and integrity--and, not least, a style that is Western in outlook. This brings up an interesting question: Just how transferable is a style associated with a particular tradition in light of the different culture of the person practicing it? We can argue forever about the niceties of cultural purity, but the truth is that, ever since culture began, artists have borrowed from what was visually available (look at art resulting from trade occurring along the Silk Road). Unfortunately, today, we have become obsessed about the borrowing, and even more problematically, we have attempted to impose a morality on appropriation. It is a complicated matter--the subject for books. And there is also the problem that contemporary eclecticism has occasioned--namely, the troubling feeling that the renting of imagery from another culture occurs only on the surface, without addressing the depths, formal and emotional and ethical, that originated the style people glibly make use of.
Still, borrowing is what people do, and it is so thoroughly established that we take it for granted. Maybe this should not be so. At the same time, it is important to recognize that remarkable results have occurred with the support of insights from a culture that is not the artist’s own. At what point does it become ethically acceptable to take on the stylistic mannerisms, if not necessarily the concepts behind them, in a body of work culturally and geographically at a remove from the background of the artist’s identity? Nakagawa has lived his entire adult life in New York City; moreover, he has actively internalized the esthetic and social values of where he lives. It is true enough now that a bohemian existence is practicable in any major city anywhere--certainly Nakagawa’s life would not be terribly different in Tokyo as a contemporary artists; the city’s current art culture is equally established and advanced. But Nakagawa has made the decision to paint in New York, and for the length of his career has embraced a highly defined realist style, one that really does look to the Occidentrather than the stylized realism of much Japanese historical art. The difference must be emphasized, not only to be accurate in regard to Nakagawa’s influences, but also to keep some sense of distance between traditions that really do not coincide in any way--except, maybe, momentarily in contemporary art. As a result, Nakagawa’s audience needs to see that his present decision--to portray the iconic Mona Lisa in light of current cultural practices and mores--carries with it implications we normally make about influence but which should be regarded in favor of a tolerance that allows Nakagawa to do what he wants.
This does not mean, though, that the problem of appropriation goes away. Western eclecticism is highly problematic in its casual, laissez-faire treatment of world culture as a museum of ideas and images, considered primarily as objects to buy. But, to be fair, sometimes the eclecticism works--on the Japanese side, there is the great example of Shusaku Endo, the novelist who was a practicing Roman Catholic. It is harder to think of Westerners successfully importing Asian values into their work--but Mark Tobey, the abstract painter originally from the Northwest, incorporated calligraphy in a dense “white writing” style and spent time both in China and Japan. His style beautifully recreates the feeling of calligraphy even though he is often mistakenly tied to the abstract-expressionist movement. So this kind of exchange can and has worked. Following that principle, we can see Nakagawa’s current treatment of the Mona Lisa as a reading of a Western culture he does in fact belong to. Doing so is an ambitious gambit on his part--it takes a lot of wherewithal to assimilate an image so central to Occidental art in an act of contemporary creativity. Indeed, the artist accentuates the current application of his ideas by embellishing the Mona Lisa image with smaller images of robots, persons affected by a mass murder in Florida, and, in a more universalizing sense, apocalyptic treatments of landscape and weather. These additions situate the paintings within a commentary that is highly innovative and impressively new. There is a large question, though, that can be asked, and it is one that has to do with realism--Can a realist approach today be accorded serious consideration, given the fact that factual presentation of recognizable imagery has been usurped by abstraction, by high-tech art, and by political impulse?
This is a fair question to ask because we are in the midst of a tradition that rejected representation in favor of abstraction roughly a century ago. Realism tends to be seen as a throwback, a deliberate return to historical origins that cannot accurately describe the intellectual complexities of life today. Moreover, there is very little interest in or respect for the simple description of things. But Nakagawa isn’t attempting description so much as he is commenting on culture, both old and new. His historically moderated icon dominates both the images he puts out and, in fact, the history he refers to. It anchors the space and the idea of the series. It also makes intricate the audience’s response to his work, in the sense that we have to negotiate the immensity of the image’s favor in an art-historical sense; the Mona Lisa cannot be used without calling up the history of the Italian Renaissance. As a result, Nakagawa’s series bends tradition but cannot break away from it, and it is more than likely that his efforts will be framed, not necessarily in a positive way, by the fact that he is Japanese. This is not his fault, but it is his problem. As a result, his work takes on a complex aura that adds to the particular images he addresses. We cannot say this is entirely Western art, although the imagery is shot through with Western iconography, as well as our knowledge that its creator is living in New York. But maybe the nature of his commentary is such that it has the quality of being outside the art history and the current affairs he is concerned with. This can be argued about, but it does in fact energize the work at hand. Issues of identity should not come to the fore in this work, but they may well surface, given that we know where Nakagawa comes from.
Nakagawa’s Earth Queen (2017) is a study of Mona Lisa as an earth mother; her skin is covered with blue and green images of earth, with apocalyptic earth imagery in the upper register of the painting--flying dinosaurs and a molten volcano on the left; a thin line of apocalyptic fire emanating from a land crack on the right. Beneath the main image, on the bottom left, is a gray portrayal of the atom bomb, while on the right is a Boschian image of a monstrous creature with a hairy lower face sitting in a chair and taking in the already partially ingested figure of a person. The aura of interpretation surrounding the Mona Lisa has always been on the side of ambiguity--just what does her smile mean? But the ambient visual surroundings of Earth Queen show us that Nakagawa is intent on re-painting a great work of art in the midst of the various hells, geographical and historical, that populate recorded time. So the art historical vigilance of the painting is undercut by horrific images that actually make the picture realistic in a moral sense as well as in a visual one. This work exemplifies the artist’s basic methodology: a great work of art decorated by the tragedies our continuum on earth is made up of. But we also must recognize the fact that the Mona Lisa figure literally embodies the earth as we know it--the imagery is there, on her body, in all its natural beauty. It looks like we are sitting poised in the middle of a conundrum--there is no answer, and not that much solace, for a world in which mass killings are commonplace. Culture, in the form of the image described, and nature, in the form of the external world imposed on the image, cannot erase the devastations of man--not to mention the random vicissitudes brought about by destructive ecological events.
The painting Guns and Silence (2018) continues Nakagawa’s penchant for recording the disturbances of our time. A luminous blue Mona Lisa sits self-sufficiently in the middle of the composition; cumulus clouds form throughout the painting, covering part of the woman’s face. A large handgun hovers in the center right; in the background above is an art historical landscape of green hills. At the bottom of the painting, on the left, a row of high school students file across the work, grasping each other’s shoulders, watched over by a cop in riot gear. The implications of the scene, based on a school shooting in Florida, are deeply unsettling. The artist also explained in conversation that the white and black cars beneath the line of students represent racial differences. Mona Lisa is an Italian historical painting, but we are present in a contemporary American culture in most of this series. It is interesting that the iconic portrait illustrates a culture that has been unable to contain the violence the picture depicts. It stands as an icon, but it is an ineffective one, although its beauty cannot be denied. We can no longer be sanguine about art’s ability to assuage the condition of the world, although the constant use of Mona Lisa in Nakagawa’s series offers the slim hope of a cultural reprise, in which artistic value, rather than social decay, attains the ascendant again. But the hope is slim to the point of impossibility, and this is evident in the painting sequence.
The final painting to be discussed, Hello A.I. (2017), is of a Mona Lisa whose neck, shoulders, and arms are covered with green grass slanted against a green background. The title names artificial intelligence as its subject; to the immediate right of the figure is a black metal robot, whose metal eyes exist on the same level as Mona Lisa’s gaze. The robotic metal contraption, which sports a monitor where the chest would be, feels intricate and distinctly foreign and threatening. It exists in negative counterpoint to the great Renaissance painting. Like the other paintings in the series, the upper background is taken up with a Renaissance landscape, the kind used symbolically or allegorically for religious reasons. On the bottom right is another kind of spiritual investigation: the presentation of a well-known South American astronomy observatory with two long, narrow probes intended to investigate celestial phenomena. These contemporary contraptions stand out, but they are eclipsed by the luminous green of the figure’s skin, with the grass acting as a symbol for the ongoing presence of nature. One can only hope that this will continue to happen! There are no mass murders being shown in this work, but the robot is frightening--visually and culturally. If it is true that we keep seeking a refuge from our awareness of a temporary existence, it seems Nakagawa is excluding technology as an answer. Art, and perhaps nature, may offer repose, but even that seems temporary. While the paintings cannot be thought of as utterly demoralized, neither do they give us the hope that things will change.
Nakagawa is a rarity in contemporary art--a highly skilled painter who has internalized art history and who is willing to comment on, if not moralize about, the way we live now. But it is very hard not to find an ethical drive in the series. Contemporary life has become so disjointed, so out of touch with emotional, intellectual, and also artistic reality, we inevitably watch our efforts disappear before us, no matter how hard we try. It is quite like writing a text in water; the difficulty is to remain committed even as our efforts to better things fail. Nakagawa keeps alive the promise of another world, one adumbrated by the greatness of the past. But, at the same time, he also is clear-eyed about the spiritual and actual violence of current experience. He cannot take his gaze away either from the Mona Lisa or from the students touched with the madness of serial killing. This is not a pleasant place to be. But neither does Nakagawa judge, even if the events in his paintings are eminently compromised. Instead, he poses a point of view that enables him, and us, to regard our condition truthfully, without sentiment. And we must remember that art is the persistent theme in this group of pictures, even if it is embellished by objects of moral decay. Additionally, we cannot gainsay the evidence, true from the beginnings of culture, that artistic activity is an illuminating process. Good art always presupposes the value of making something; artists cannot proceed without believing so. Given that Nakagawa paints so well, and so acutely about our life ills, we can only commend his position as someone working honestly at a time when it is so very hard to do so. WM
Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications.
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