by Jonathan Goodman
Kiyoshi Nakagami. Untitled. 2015. Acrylic, Chinese ink and mica on canvas. 51 3/16 x 76 ¾ inches, 195 x 130 cm.
Kiyoshi Nakagami, a mature artist who lives and works in Kanagawa, Japan, helps James Turrell with his installations when the American artist installs in Japan. This is a telling biographical particular as Nakagami’s own work consists of paintings that concern the impact of light in a cosmic sense. Composed of acrylic, Chinese ink, and mica, the artist’s paintings present areas occupied by darkness and light, mostly in sepia tones—as if Nakagami were interested in reinterpreting the very beginnings of the universe! This cosmic sense of things is central to his practice, which presents a mysterious aura to his audience, whose members are taken with the high drama and essential enigma of his art. Nakagami does not title his paintings, preferring to let the experience of the works themselves to affect his viewers. The pictures themselves are not remarkably large, yet they communicate something of the vastness of worlds upon worlds, with the light coming from an unknown, mystical source. This treatment of an inchoate, amorphous theme is not without its difficulties; implications of meaning are unspoken and unspecified. Yet the drama of the Nakagami’s argument looms large within his powerful landscapes, which refuse to indicate their source of illumination. In his art, the magical is realistic.
While Nakagami’s art is more or less abstract, one of the things to consider is its complex relations to ink painting. The artist does use Chinese ink as a major material, yet the images can hardly be said to refer closely to the landscape as it has been traditionally represented in Japanese painting. Instead, we experience an idealized evanescence illuminated from within, a mystical glow that fills the painting. In this sense, Nakagami is very much a contemporary artist, keyed into the international language taken on by abstract artists working all over the world. Interestingly, in a general sense, given the speed of imagistic communication via the Internet, work is losing its nationalistic specificity. But that doesn’t stop the solo artist from attaining his or her own particular vision, which in the case of Nakagami is highly determined and remarkably individualistic. Light is notoriously vague as a subject, but it is also a powerful theme. Its treatment may be considered figurative in the sense that light is a visible presence to both artist and viewer; at the same time, it must also be understood as abstract because it cannot be represented as a particular thing.
The connection between the two states of seeing can be experienced in a work from 2015 (all works in the show come from that year), in which the central, circular source of light is shadowed by what looks like a sloping tree line rising diagonally across the lower third of the canvas. It is a mystifying image that might—or might not—refer to sunset or dawn. What Nakagami really is asserting, here and in the other paintings, is presence without particularity. He relies on an intuitive approach to light, finding within it the semblance of a natural event. The source of illumination is never offered—hence the mysticism of the painting(s). In another, larger work (76 inches square), it looks like a group of poles are angling upward to a source of light placed at the uppermost left of the painting; the structure is imagistically unexplainable, yet lends the image a density and organization that dominates the picture. One really has only a small idea of what these images present, but this is not a disadvantage. Instead, it is part of Nakagami’s artistry and craft. It becomes clear that art convinces not only by its verisimilitude but also by its apparitional poise, as we have found out from the history of abstract painting.
To return to the notion of culturally specific origins: there is nothing outstandingly Japanese in a cultural sense in Nakagama’s art. One of course can link his work to studies of sky and the sources of light illuminating it, but generally speaking the work is about ineffable presence. In a time when the Internet and its worldliness dominate communications and ideas, it is more than moderately pleasurable to come across art that simply exists without assertion. There is a horizontal painting in which light is seen as a semi-inverted triangle, with foam-like excrescences on the edges of the lower point. As happens with all of Nakagami’s work, secrecy threatens to take over. The actual meaning of the imagery is more or less academic; the artist wants his viewers to experience the image rather than analyze it. We may be mystified by the lack of distinguishable objects in Nakagami’s art, but that does not mean we reject its unusual charisma. In a way, these paintings are about moments in time—snapshots of cosmic occurrences we can see but do not understand. Thus, Nakagami presents us with a conundrum made visible but not necessarily able to be explained. This is not a weakness, bur rather a strength.