Studio Visit with Portland Painter Jean Nagai



I was first introduced to Jean Nagai’s art by a friend of mine, the poet Sam Lohmann. Sam knew of Jean through some Pacific Northwest connections by way of Olympia Washington, where Jean had lived for a time. Having seen online images some of Jean's paintings, I wanted to see them in person, but I’d missed his Portland exhibition. So I proposed another show. This was back in April, and we were lucky enough to bring his All Are Welcome exhibition to life at Portland State’s White Gallery. The work was incredible: two large paintings and an installation in response to the anti-immigration policy imposed by our so-called leader. 

In hopes to describe the encouragement felt, first hearing Jean’s concepts and spirit behind this work, and then seeing itand smelling it (the installation involved a drawing composed of various aromatic and colorful spices from the banned countries)—what I can say is that it seemed to be just the kind of meaningful and aesthetically resonant work that I think people needed, right then. There was a sense, on and since Election Day, that there’s maybe no point in making art. The gallery I was working for even hosted a panel discussion about this topic. In the end, of course, we all agreed: art is still worthwhile and artists can do a lot of good, no matter how bad things in this country might seem. 

And so: back to Jean Nagai. Here we have this wonderfully talented, absolutely socially conscientious and deeply creative person who is willing to do the good work of making art that engages the viewer in all the various ways that such an era necessitates. It’s an art that speaks to the issues that affect the underprivileged, the marginalized, the fearful, the intimidated, those at risk. It's also art that is as richly engaging to all the senses it can be. If all these descriptors sound like a tall order, that’s because it is a tall order. After some time had passed since Jean’s exhibition in the White Gallery, I wanted to hear about what he’s been up to, with the hopes that he might share some of what he’d expressed to me over various phone conversations, which still inspired engagement, even a sense of hope.  

Paul Maziar: Are there any unconventional spaces your work has been exhibited; and how do you feel about the everyday gallery setting, good bad or indifferent?

Jean Nagai: I was in Nice, France, traveling with a friend and we wanted to make some money so we constructed a “shopfront” out of cardboard right near the beach. We sold handmade postcards, cigarettes, and haircuts. I think we sold one postcard that day. It was incredibly naive and idealistic, and we didn’t care because it was a naive time for me — I thought anything was possible. Positive mental attitude is crucial to the unconventional, the PoC, the LGBTQ, the people who don’t feel like they belong or connect to this world. Much of pop media says that “something is wrong with you” but if you believe in yourself, love yourself, you know that is not true. 

The gallery can be a wonderful setting to view art, with its white walls and community that supports the space. I think the problem isn’t the gallery; it’s the person who runs the gallery who thinks they are doing the artist a favor, or creates an intimidating or unwelcoming space for the public.  

That’s true. The fact of the necessary mental positivity you mention — there’s so much going on right now that’ll drive one to despair — and so is your critique of the gross magnanimity of certain gallery proprietors or curators. Does that problem also seem institutional to you? (Given the traditions and bureaucracies set in place by the art market, academia or whatever.) I’ll bet those traditions and conventions are changing, too.

I’ve had some lovely experiences with galleries and some forgettable experiences, and there was even a time where it turned violent. I’m not sure if the gross magnanimous attitude is institutional; it's maybe a learned behavior that comes from class and privilege. Yes, I believe the traditions and conventions are changing in many ways. The popularity of street art is a good example of this. Who is the most famous artist in the world? It’s not Warhol, it’s not Kahlo. It’s Banksy, and they did it by vandalism and taking up public space illegally — using recognizable imagery, which is just incredible. They inspired thousands of “artists” that they could do it on their own without the help of expensive art schools or galleries. This is an empowering lesson that the art market, academia, or galleries will never teach you. Somewhere in this, social media and self promotion plays a big part. 

Jean Nagai, Ether, 2016, Correctional fluid, acrylic and cyanescens spores on canvas, 48 × 36 in

Thinking of your nuts-and-spices installation at the White Gallery, have you been working in other materials or mediums outside of oil or acrylic painting? Along those lines — what brought on your use of correction-fluid?

For the work I was making in Olympia, WA, I was adding Cyanescens spores into my blue and white paintings as a symbol of experience/knowledge. For me, art is a unique language of emotional experience that is constantly evolving, and is to be shared with others, and adding the Cyanescens spores was a way of saying that. The correctional fluid, aka White-Out. What does it mean to “White-Out?” To correct a mistake? It’s a material that can be bought in any dollar store. This was also around the time the “BLACK LIVES MATTER” movement was picking up, and I was thinking about the erasure of PoC voices, the erasing of history, the correctional system, and lack of color in the world. 

I saw and was blown away by your BLACK LIVES MATTER mural in Olympia. That piece, if I remember it right, seemed to hinge on color, and had exciting relationships between tenuous forms. To me, those aspects were poignant and timely. The piece was doing all these things simultaneously; it was imaginative and had a strong message. Did you purposely make the piece a bit more abstract, relative to a lot of protest-leaning art one might have seen around then? 

Thank you, Paul. The message was and is important to the public to see, and I knew the mural would take up a lot of visual space, so I made the conscious decision to abstract the text with color and shape so that it could be seen as a mural too. Sometimes as a man, when I am faced with complex emotions and pain I have an inability to process or empathize; instead I lash out in anger (which is an acceptable way of reacting to this unjust racist world). I did not want make this mural about anger. For me, this message has layers of emotions, sadness, fear, empathy, rage, confusion apathy. And one way of expressing multitudes of ideas is through abstraction.

Jean Nagai, Rising Tide, 2016, Correctional fluid, acrylic and cyanescens spores on canvas, 48 × 60 in

Is there deeper, even intuitive meaning behind your chosen hues? I'm thinking of those rich, numbered blues; the purples and seascape- or southwest desert-hues seen in your recent “SYSTEM’’ pictures (which I have only seen on your Instagram of course)...

With the cyan or ultramarine work, I was thinking about my parents, who are from Japan and how far they traveled to come to America: the Pacific Ocean, between Japan and America. I associate the blue with water, or the unknown, the void. 

I definitely got that void-vibe in the paintings from All Are Welcome, and, weirdly enough, they were realistic to my feelings of being on open ocean. (It’s also, somehow, not Impressionistic though.) Pretty trippy out there. 

Impressionistic, as in impressionism? 

Yeah, Impressionism. These distinctions don’t really matter, but it’s fun to point out analogies between styles and think about where they don’t line up, and why that is. Your work is very open while still sort of being “about” something, and that something is more than just painting itself, or one narrow, subjective experience. So you’ve got a bit of the impression — ocean-horizon-sky, in the case of Rising Tide — but then everything else that comes with the wide bed of luminous blue and white that could lead to a multitude of looking experiences. It goes past a conventional depiction; it’s a little mystical as well. You can stand there forever and keep coming up with new ideas about what it is that’s in front of you. I think perception is the turning point. Beyond impression, into like metaphysical or whatever.   

Yes, to have the “work very open while still sort of being about something” is deliberate and hearing you say that makes me happy, because we’re communicating through this medium of paint. There are many ways of seeing or sensing; it’s not with just our eyes or brains, the five senses. It is  too limiting to perceive reality and emotions in that way. 

Billions of people on this earth believe in a higher power, and that is not something that can be felt with our five senses. What if we taught children there was more than the five senses, that the soul is sense and to believe that these connections we have to each other (universal love) is as important as touch[?] Sometimes, I forget that my soul is there, that there are people all around me who I don’t know or trust. This leads me to be disconnected with people or animals. For example, I have a disconnect with Japanese culture. So when I paint and use time to open up and use this combo of blue/white I’m attempting connect to my ancestors. The ultramarine is a gorgeous color. There was a time when I would chosen to use IKB (International Klein Blue), but it’s also not mine. I grew up in the PNW — it’s gray and raining more than half the year, and there is green everywhere. But I internalized those melancholic feelings of the place as blue. 

I left Olympia; I’d been there too long and needed a major change, and an opportunity to go to Roswell, New Mexico came up. I’d seen the desert, but New Mexico has an its own set of colors and landscape that do not exist anywhere but there. The sky is awesome; every sunset I saw there was unbelievable. It’s the most real thing, nature. 

Is the Roswell connection making its way into your most recent paintings; what else is influencing you lately?

I think about our planet and how humans are directly affecting the air and water and soil. These are all things that need to be maintained and clean in order for humans to survive, and I am shocked that people still do not understand that this is real. It is happening, and we can all use less to keep this party going. So, what is influencing me these days are the PoC, trans, animal lovers, earth lovers, lovers who are making conscious decisions not to be a lazy piece of human garbage. It’s really not that hard to find alternatives to protein or getting from point A to B — but it’s hard to think about those things if you only think about yourself. I’m definitely part of this problem too. My paintings are made with  acrylic paint which is made with polymers which come from oil from the ground. 

Damn. That’s all on point, and touching. It’s really a beautiful thing what giving a damn and having an imagination can do (and, after all: life before Art, right?). You seem to have a rich connection to or congeniality with the communities that you find yourself in. I'm curious about how you're getting on in Los Angeles and what the experience has been like — in terms of finding camaraderie and showing your work.

Los Angeles was overwhelming for me for the first couple of months. I rarely drove in Olympia, so living in a vast car-dependent city is nuts to me. I live in [Koreatown], which I hear is the most densely populated place in Los Angeles. I do like this neighborhood. For the most part, people are chill, and there are a 100 restaurants in walking distance. I’ve met a few artists here and have gone to a few shows. The museums are solid here. I have not had a chance to show my work, but I hope that will change soon. WM

Jean Nagai, In The Sun, 2017, acrylic, sand, smog, cubensis spores on canvas,  48 x 72 in

Follow Jean Nagai on Instagram and Wordpress.


Paul Maziar

Paul Maziar is a Portland based writer, curator, and small-press editor. His first pamphlet of poems, Little Advantages, was published in 2013, and was followed by three others. His first full-length poetry collection, Opening Night, is forthcoming from BlazeVOX [books]. Paul's art writings can be read at artcritical, ArtsWatch, and his blog The Works; and certain of his poems can be read at the Brooklyn Rail, and Across The Margin.

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