“My painting skills are a gift from my dad,” says artist Masaya Nakayama. “I take that very seriously.”
Based in Brooklyn for the past seven years, Nakayama’s artistic career has been focused primarily in the United States, New York in particular, but his work, he says, is rooted in his Osaka identity and traditional Japanese painting techniques.
Nakayama’s father, a Japanese chef, was a painter in his youth and likewise, Nakayama developed an interest in art and painting at a young age. He went to Osaka University of Arts, where he studied nihonga (Japanese painting), using washi paper or silk, sumi ink and pigments suspended in glue.
“I also had a rock band where I sang for a while,” he says. “After I graduated, that’s all I did for a little bit. Then we ended the band and I became a teacher. … It’s hard to live as artist in Japan — as a painter. So I worked as a junior high school teacher”
Though he enjoyed teaching, Nakayama says he felt that he had given up on his true potential: “During the last year I taught, I was a third-year homeroom teacher. I spoke with my students about their future plans and I told them ‘you should do this,’ talking to them in grand terms as an adult.
“But I myself hadn’t really moved forward with my own dreams. I felt like I told my students to respect their dreams, but I didn’t feel I was doing that myself.”
In 2012, Nakayama made the leap to follow his dreams in New York.
“(Jean-Michel) Basquiat was from New York, as are many of my favorite artists. So I went there. There’s a lot of contemporary art there — I was always attracted to New York,” he recalls. “I was an artist’s assistant and also made my own art along the way. I began to make work more seriously and showed some of it in Chelsea and Brooklyn galleries.”
Now, Nakayama is independent and doesn’t belong to any gallery in New York or Tokyo.
Like a growing number of contemporary artists, he feels that it is better to be unsigned than to be with a gallery that isn’t sympathetic to his vision.
“The gallery that I was with before didn’t really cared about the content of my art. They focused on how famous I was,” he say, explaining that he is looking to find a gallery that loves his concept and his work, and isn’t too focused on the business aspect of art.
Thanks to the rise of social media, it’s possible for Nakayama to find buyers through a variety of other channels. “Sometimes art collectors (of which there are many in New York) find me through my Instagram,” he says. “I get a lot of (interest) through that. I do commissions for clients and sell my work.”
Despite living in New York, Nakayama primarily sticks to nihonga, a notoriously finicky style of painting that requires shipping of materials from Japan. “It’s washi that’s very important for me,” he says when asked about this preference.
“It’s not that nihonga is so important. I chose nihonga in university so I could paint on paper,” he says. “My father has a small Japanese restaurant. He used to have little washi bags covering the chopsticks for his customers. When they would get dirty, my mom would open up the used paper and I would write and draw on it as paper.”
Nakayama also says that nihonga has a focus on “subtraction,” which he finds interesting.
“We often leave the paper showing for the brightest white in a painting. In Western painting, you use white paint on top of everything for a bright white,” he says. “Japanese painting is often about subtraction — not addition. Western art is often about addition.”
Though Nakayama’s images use bright neon colors and may not immediately strike the viewer as minimal, his latest series “There Is,” currently on show until April 21 at the Kamakura Drawing Gallery in Japan, is intimately connected to the concept of subtraction.
For these works, he created a rough outline of an image on his iPad, then used tape to depict the same outline on paper. He next painted over the paper, so that when the tape was removed, it revealed the white outline of the paper below layers of multicolored paint.
“I want to force us to reconsider the basis, the foundation of our understanding of a topic,” he says. “For example, the original source image used in my painting of two men holding hands (“No Border”) is actually an image of a South Korean and North Korean man meeting for the first time. But it would be easy for viewers to not consider the meaning behind the painting. So much information comes at us that we don’t have time to consider anything below the surface. I want people to reconsider this.”
Nakayama’s works express a desire to enlighten and create connections.
“I feel that I am most interested in educating young people through my work. I want to leave something meaningful for the next generation,” he says.
For Nakayama, the experience of meeting many different types of people in New York was incredibly influential on his work.
“There are a lot of types of people and lives. There’s no correct answer,” he says. “That’s the opposite of Japan. Japanese people want to create a correct answer and stick to it. In New York there are lots of different people and religions. They want to respect and accept each other.
“For example, it was in New York that I made gay friends, and I began to think more about gay rights. There are ways in which Japan is still conservative — maybe we don’t always want to accept things from other places yet. So I try to include these unheard voices in my work.”
Name: Masaya Nakayama
Key moments in career:
2005 — Graduates with a degree in nihonga (Japanese painting) from Osaka University of Arts
2009-2012 — Works as a junior high school teacher in Osaka
2012 — Moves to New York to pursue a painting career
Things I miss about Osaka: “The great food. It’s just amazing. And my family is here. But maybe the food more than my family.”
Things I like about New York: “There’s old and new things in New York. Not just brand-new rebuilt things like Tokyo. They don’t just update with the times. New York has things from the past.”
Words to live by: “Add what there’s not enough of into the world.”