Naoto Nakagawa's ‘Earth Wave’ in New York

Terror in the Garden of Eden

Earth Wave IX (2011): Profound encounters with the natural world.
Earth Wave IX (2011): Profound encounters with the natural world.

Naoto Nakagawa, the distinguished Japanese-American artist, has produced three major cycles of painting over the past 20 years: "Song of the Earth," "Forest of Eden" and, in his current exhibition at Feature Inc., "Earth Wave." All of them use a form of what might be called magic realism to interrogate our human interaction with the environment, a subject of more than passing interest as we begin to suffer the escalating consequences of our abuse of the planet.

The title of Nakagawa's latest series has obvious poignancy— not to say prophetic anticipation— in light of the tsunami that devastated his native country last month. That was an act of Nature alone, for we have not yet (except in fantasy) altered the movement of tectonic plates. Its result, however, in the flooding of the Fukushima nuclear reactors and the subsequent discharge of radiation and irradiated waters into the air, soil and ocean, have made an abrupt but relatively short-lived calamity into a lethal heritage for generations to come.

Nakagawa's art, however, while acknowledging the ominous effects of human activity, engages the question of our encounter with the natural world on a far profounder level. From our earliest myths we have construed nature in a double-aspected form. It's both the source and nurturer of life, and an estranged Other: a mother who carries both life and death in her womb, and never grants one without demanding the other.

Decaying fruits of nature

We responded, accordingly, with both love and fear, and a concealed hatred as well. On the level of technological praxis, we cope with this paradox (and also make our living) through domestication and exploitation. The more aggressively we seek to impose our will on the natural world, the further we estrange ourselves from it, and turn an ambivalent relationship into an adversarial one. It's a contest we're sure to lose.

Nakagawa's principal antecedents, it seems to me, are the Dutch still life masters of the 17th Century, who often represent the fruits of nature as touched with decay, and are fond of inserting skulls into their depictions of fish, game and flowers. Nakagawa is a good deal subtler than this, often depending on hidden images and trompe l'oeil effects.

He acknowledges, in his use of carefully coordinated but often decidedly non-naturalistic color patterns, that our epistemological construction of the world around us is an artifice to begin with— a "forest of Eden," to use the title of his earlier series, in which we plant our feet not on solid earth but in the labyrinth of the imagination.

No single way

This act of construction is itself a subject of "Earth Wave." Nakagawa begins a painting with a series of photographs (mostly of Hudson River landscape), from which he chooses elements that are superimposed on the painted surface in the form of overlapping concentric rectangles, so that the master image emerges as the composite of many acts of visual perception. This perception itself is mediated by our awareness of photographic process and photographic representation (in all its myriad contemporary forms) as something that has now become a part of our collective eye.

To put it reductively, Nakagawa wants us to be steadfastly aware that there can be no single way of looking at anything, and thus no privileged perspective from which to contemplate the world. We proceed as if hacking our way through a suffocating jungle (and, indeed, there is no unoccupied space in the "Earth Wave" canvases), and the images that proliferate before us have a taunting, menacing quality, as if daring us to name or describe them.

A long way from Genesis

This is a long way from the tame Garden of Eden proposed to us by the Book of Genesis, in which the beasts and flowers of the field come tamely up to us to acknowledge their ontological submission by taking the names we give them.

Of course, as Genesis points out, that's precisely the world we've lost. Nakagawa wants to confront us with our alienation, and to show us the essential strangeness of that Land of Nod that we have simultaneously created and been given.

From a formal point of view, these paintings are among the most gorgeous work Nakagawa has done. This should be taken as a caution, too, because the dangers and even terrors that lurk in them are concealed at a superficial glance.

For me, they are objects of profound meditation, in which much of the history of human perception is cunningly recapitulated, and the problematic of its future suggested. They are not, however, concerned with fashionable doomsaying. Call them a report from the front lines of artistic vision, in which one of our ablest see-ers— and seers— gives us a communiqué on the territory at hand, and perhaps the territory ahead.

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