A tricky postscript on the art of abstraction

Merging the figurative with the abstract is a fundamental gameplay of Torawo Nakagawa's artwork that viewers should take a little spare time to fully appreciate

by Matthew Larking

Gauging Torawo Nakagawa’s art in “postscript” at Kyoto’s Kodama Gallery is no easy undertaking. His paintings resist narrative cohesion and cultivate a certain hermeticism, all the while preserving an attractive visual dimension. Concerned as he is with a distinctive process of painting — a style founded in his concern for drawing, line, color and spatial relations or distortions — he nonetheless verges on alienating the viewer simply because his preoccupations are not conventionally shared by others.

One approach to Nakagawa’s art is to try to reconcile the figurative and abstract elements; though this can be perilous. Trying to pick through the ruins of figuration to find something recognizable is fraught with uncertainty. And attempting to assemble the figurative elements piecemeal is unproductive.

In the most figurative work on show “Wanting to Black Out at Heart” (2011), you’ll immediately see a skull skewered by a tree. But then, if you look at the work a little longer, you’ll wonder if it really is a skull. Perhaps it is merely a few visual conventions that have been toyed with to make you interpret it that way.

The “things” in Nakagawa’s paintings are never really grounded, even though they appear in landscapes. Take “An Inconvenient Hole” (2011), for example. The hole opens up flute-like in mid-air and drains down into a supporting armature rising from an arid terrain. Most artworks have a figure-ground relationship, from which the viewer differentiates a figure at the fore and perceives the rest as background. Yet in works such as “Iris” (2011), Nakagawa completely ignores that relationship by conflating the figurative with the abstract and exploiting the viewers’ confused perception to undermine any certainty of the painting’s subject.

In “Lovegasaki” (2011), the silhouette of a roughly drawn wolf is at first easily discerned. But that visual assurance teeters when trying to discern the profile of its head from the multicolor sparkling mass from which it emerges, a mass that blooms out from a billowing cloud of white. Whether it is a moon hovering in the sky on the right is altogether uncertain because another nearly identical form also appears in the lower foreground section. Nakagawa, at times, has a special use for figuration, but when he does not, he simply abandons it.

His depicted worlds are neither ordered nor meaningful; but that, arguably, is the point. Nakagawa’s enigmatic paintings resist crystallization — there are no grand narratives, primary meanings, or even clear secondary ones. This makes it difficult to say anything definitive about his works. That frustration, of being unable to pin down meanings, is woven into the viewer’s encounter with Nakagawa’s art and it constitutes part of the viewer’s response.

Nakagawa’s recent uptake of using glass for his paintings, unsurprisingly focuses on opacity. “Layer of Reminiscence” (2011) — six planes of glass, each with a different scene painted on it, stacked 5 cm apart — is not easy viewing. Depending on your orientation, the foreground sheets either yield to the sheets behind them so that a landscape is created as the composite layers coalesce, or they become obscured to reveal a very different picture.

Another new development in Nakagawa’s oeuvre, though a continuation of his penchant for layering and veiling, is his foray into digital imagery. “All is Fiction” (2010), a set of four printed digital images sandwiched between plexiglass, combines the visual trademarks of two American postwar painterly abstractionists — Morris Louis and Jules Olitski. Louis’ revolutionary painting process, involving pouring paints onto canvases and manipulating it without a brush, offers a kind of curtain of color modulations, as can be seen in his 1954-9 “Veil” series. Olitski’s near single-colored canvases on which he daubed multicolored strips on one or two borders to partially frame the color field, markedly emphasizes the purity and solemnity of an expanse.

Nakagawa’s works are much smaller in size, though they reproduce the look of Louis’ “Veils” in their striated meditations upon color contrast and, due to the nature of digitization, there is no literal brushwork. Olitski’s multicolored framing strip appears at the top of each image in a pixelated blurry confusion of color that then morphs into a Louis-like curtain.

Abstraction, by definition, does not re-present the objective world. Etymologically the word derives from the Latin meaning of “drawn away,” and given the sketchiness of many of the works here, it has a particular grip on the artist’s oeuvre. Abstraction, however, may re-present a highly subjective world, and Nakagawa’s artistic one is an intriguing one in which to linger.

“postscript” at Kodama Gallery, Kyoto, runs till Feb. 19; admission free; open Tues.-Sat. 11 a.m.-7 p.m., closed Sun. and Mon. For more information, visit www.kodamagallery.com.