Washington, DC

Tom Nakashima

Washington Project for the Arts (WPA)

This exhibition of drawings, prints, and constructions by Tom Nakashima, guest curated by Lynn Schmidt, amounted to a retrospective of the artist’s mature work that began around 1983 or ’84, the time of his “Ground Zero” series. As this title suggests, Nakashima is concerned with social and political themes, including that of nuclear war; themes that have personal resonance for him. Growing up in World War II America, with a Japanese-American father and a European-Canadian mother who was a strict Roman Catholic, Nakashima struggled to sort out his cultural heritage and identity. These conflicts appear in his work as Eastern and Western symbols and art-historical references.

In the large oil painting Beauty and Karmic Fish Await the Western Sunrise, 1984, part of the “Ground Zero” series, a white panel with an abstract design after Jasper Johns (concentric circles within a diamond) is juxtaposed with a dark panel of more realistic forms (a female nude from Henri Matisse’s Bathers by a River and an Oriental-looking fish). While these juxtapositions—East/West, realistic/abstract, light/dark—suggest opposites, they do not present the world in terms of these simple dichotomies. A Hindu text, telling of the shattering of worlds in a burst of light, surrounds the diamond, transforming it into the “ground zero” of a nuclear blast. Its concentric circles suggest the radiating energy that would threaten all cultures equally.

Nakashima has painted several works in response to U.S. policy in Central America, including Death of a Revolutionary, 1986. This large, three-panel work is rather didactic (its left panel is unresolved and apparently a later addition). In 1985, after studying traditional Japanese art and craft, he constructed a screen after Hokusai’s famous print The Great Wave. Titled Self-Portrait as Sea Monster Contemplating the Moon, this work is less an act of appropriation than a symbolic acknowledgment of Nakashima’s desire to understand, at a deeper level than style, his Japanese heritage.

In a similar way, a small painting of one of Giotto’s early-Renaissance buildings indicates Nakashima’s continuing interest in Western culture. Titled Homage to Giotto, 1987, this painting is strangely haunting, perhaps because it has been emptied of Giotto’s psychologically complex figures. The building plays a major role in the subsequent series “Sanctuary,” where, symbolizing Western culture, it is played off against Eastern ideas. This is most apparent in Monument to a World War, 1988, a small model of the building, on the back wall of which kneels a Buddha-like figure before a “sacred” stick. Painted in an Oriental style, this figure faces, on an adjacent half-wall, a Johns-like American flag.

Such ideas find their fullest integration and expression around the time of the large Sanctuary, 1989. In this painting, Giotto’s lonely building, isolated against a dark ground, is theatrically illuminated from above as large (karmic) fish float toward it. Sketched in thick, gestural, yet transparent strokes, this Oriental fish becomes an apparition casting a “solid,” phallic shadow across the threshold of the structure. Fusing Eastern and Western sensibilities as well as symbols, Sanctuary quietly suspends reality, something increasingly evident in such later works as Cage and Mobius Strip, Grey, White, Yellow, both 1990. The deep psychological overtones betray the artist’s struggle to develop a sense of self, a struggle centered on the individual’s need to develop an identity in relation to the larger world.

Howard Risatti