Kiyoshi Nakagami: EPIPHANY

by Taney Roniger

September 6 – October 20, 2012
Galerie Richard
New York, NY

Kiyoshi Nakagami. Untitled, 2012. acrylic on canvas, 151 7/16 x 151 7/16 inches, 384.5 x 384.5 cm. 

On first appearances, the paintings of Kiyoshi Nakagami seem to be depictions of dramatic skyscapes, of vast plumes and rays of sunlight pouring in from behind various kinds of cloud formations under a range of atmospheric conditions. The work’s subject is clearly light – or, more accurately, the diffusion of light in space – but, as the viewer quickly comes to realize, this is not the light we know as natural light, nor the clouds we know as natural clouds, nor any space we’ve ever physically inhabited. The light that enacts its drama in these paintings is positively uncanny – at once familiar and foreign – and for this reason we are immediately drawn into the paintings’ world. If not representations of natural light in natural space, of what are these scapes depictions? Or, alternatively, are these paintings to be read as abstractions?

In part, this sense of strangeness is evinced by the fact that the source of all this light is never defined; it remains perpetually hidden from view, obstructed by the nebulous forms it partially illuminates. These, in turn, remain equally undefined – neither entirely vaporous, like clouds or smoke, nor distinctly material, like foliage or cracked earth. Beyond the bursts of light and their materially ambiguous recipients, there is only a vast and dark emptiness, rendered with exquisitely subtle gradations of tone and hue.

Kiyoshi Nakagami. Untitled, 2012. acrylic on canvas, 71 /1/2 x 90 inches each , 181,8 x 229,3 cm each.

But before the surge of questions there is the feeling, which is immediate, and tremendous. Though the scale of the paintings varies considerably – ranging from a near-monumental 6’ x 15’ diptych to a relatively intimate 19” x 24” canvas – the vastness of the space is equally palpable throughout. As one becomes immersed in each painting, the depth of the space seems to expand in all directions, suggesting an infinitely receding horizon that feels both spatial and temporal. The ecstatic feeling of opening, of expansion, is held in counterpoise by a vague sense of apprehension: Where are we, and are we welcome here?

Notably, all of Nakagami’s paintings are untitled, and this linguistic silence serves to plunge the viewer even further into the depths of ambiguity generated by the work.  There being no recourse to be found in external referents, we are compelled to move closer toward the paintings’ surfaces and fix our inquiry on what is present. Curiously, the closer one gets the more the paintings’ material presence seems to recede.

On close inspection, the physicality of the paint is barely discernible; largely diaphanous, it bears no evidence of a brush or any other kind of instrument, nor does it tell of any kind of corporeal movement on the part of the artist. Instead of emphatic matter, what we find are innumerable layers of finely pigmented (and occasionally metallic) washes that permeate the canvas, leaving delicate rivulet-like stains whose irregular edges refract light in infinitely varied ways. In these works, the paint reads as more of a trace or a record of a natural occurrence than a signifier of expressive human intention.


Kiyoshi Nakagami.Untitled, 2012. acrylic on canvas, 76 3/5 x 76 3/5 inches, 194,5 x 194,5 cm.

That the tensions between material and immaterial, human agency and natural phenomena, and representation and abstraction announce themselves so strongly in this work is not incidental, given the artist’s deep roots in the culture of his native Japan. Born in Shizuoka in 1949, Nakagami has worked for many decades within the tradition of Nihonga (or Japanese-style) painting, which defines itself in opposition to Western painting. Whereas Western art is fundamentally rooted in mimesis – in seeking to copy nature or “capture” its appearance –Nihonga painting aspires to penetrate appearances in order to get at essences.

In Nihonga, it is not representing what nature looks like that the artist is after but rather a sense of something internal to it, a sense of its inherence. In contrast to our Western tradition’s insistence on naturalism, Nihonga is fundamentally evocative rather than descriptive, internally oriented rather than externally seeking. In its pursuit of immanence, a sense of the sublime wholly different from that which has driven many Western artists is Nihonga’s utmost concern.

Kiyoshi Nakagami.Untitled, 2012. acrylic on canvas, 24 x 11/16 inches, 61 x 50 cm.

The philosophical implications of Nihonga – both the worldview from which it arises and that to which it is fundamentally opposed – pervade every aspect of Nakagami’s work. First and foremost, they are to be found in the conspicuous absence of the artist’s hand throughout. In the Western tradition, the hand of the artist signifies his ego, his individuality; the signature mark it imposes on the world is what separates him from others, and it is of consummate value. In the Japanese tradition, the artist’s ego – his individual will – is subordinated to something more universal, something in which the artist participates but of which he feels he is but a small part (be it defined as Nature, Cosmos, etc.). Looking closely at Nakagami’s paintings, it is clear that the artist does not forcefully control the paint with any instrument, but rather, with exquisite skill, guides the materials in such a way that their inherent properties can express themselves on the canvas.

One can imagine that what is required to achieve such a delicate operation involves a long process in which the artist must act with the utmost concentration, diligently dismissing his own will when its clamoring becomes too forceful, and always, with much patience, letting things arise of themselves. Displacing our Western notion of the artist-as-solo-agent enacting an agonistic battle against inert materials, one imagines a contemplative seeker deeply engaged in a dialogic relationship with his canvas – methodically attending, bearing witness, to the painting’s gradual coming-into-being. In Nakagami’s paintings, the results are nothing short of virtuosic.

Implicit in the artist’s method of engagement is the distinction that casts the two opposing worldviews – Western and Japanese – into the highest relief, and this is their respective attitudes toward nature. The idea of the “conquest of nature,” so central to our modern Western inheritance, is nowhere to be found in the Japanese sensibility. To the latter, nature is not seen as an opposing force to be controlled, subjugated, and shaped to fit our own needs and desires, but is rather a power to be treated with respect, admiration, and even awe. Far from being a separate force to be reckoned with, nature is regarded as a whole from which we are fundamentally inseparable. Thus, to engage with nature in an intimate dialogue is in a sense to engage with the deepest aspects of one’s own mind.

If a quasi-religious sentiment attends Nakagami’s paintings (indeed one cannot but think of Zen Buddhism as a formative influence), we would be misguided in drawing any Christian inferences from the show’s title, Epiphany. Although the artist is taciturn on many aspects of his work (he is reputed to refuse any explanation of how his work is made, for example), he does make it clear that the show’s title refers to the Joycean rather than the Christian sense of the word. For James Joyce, an epiphany is a sudden moment of realization or awakening when a thing comes to be apprehended in its essence, in its own suchness. In Joyce’s Stephen Hero (the early version of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), the author has Hero, during a conversation with a friend, describe it thus:

Imagine my glimpses at that clock [referring to the clock of the Ballast office in Dublin] as the gropings of a spiritual eye which seeks to adjust its vision to an exact focus. The moment the focus is reached the object is epiphanised. It is just in this epiphany that I find…the supreme quality of beauty. 

In this sense, an epiphany is a rare moment of spiritual lucidity in which things which had been hidden behind appearances become manifest, and in so doing a flash of holistic understanding – of illumination in its deepest sense –  erupts, if only for an instant.

Rather than as representations of external light, then, we might consider Nakagami’s paintings representations of a mind’s inner illumination as it reaches that moment in which matter and mind fuse to ignite an insight into fundamental truth. This, of course, refers not just to the portent of an artist in deep engagement with his painting but to the profundity of encounter itself. In both cases, it is neither the subject nor the object that is the true source of the illumination, but emphatically the dialogic relationship between the two.

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