Naoto Nakagawa

Nielsen Gallery

Naoto Nakagawa has dedicated himself to painting still lifes ever since his move, in 1962, from Japan to New York. In his most recent solo show, consisting of 13 acrylic and mixed-media paintings from 1992–96, and seven drawings executed in 1995, Nakagawa focuses on two motifs—roses and earth. His paintings transform the flowers and clumps of ripped-up turf, carefully arranged on a table in the studio, into haunting visions in which color is minimized and images are placed against a background of black and gray. In some, the paintings take on aspects of sculpture as the rolled left-hand side juts out from the wall, like a mounted scroll.

As a member of the O.K. Harris Gallery hyperrealist stable in the ’70s, Nakagawa was renowned for his highly keyed depictions of nature juxtaposed with consumer items and high-tech commodities (e.g., drills, sneakers, and bicycles, balanced with fish and flowers). But the five years he spent in rural Vermont (1975–79) sparked his interest in raw nature—in an environment reminiscent of that of his childhood, outside Osaka. He began to juxtapose clumps of earth and industrial images in 1976, and has managed to combine natural and technological elements in his work since. Night Earth, 1995, includes combinations of earth and sand, binders, acrylic, and hand-mixed pigments. The viewer is offered something of an insider’s view of growth and decay: blades of living and dying grass tumbling over turf ripped from the ground and arranged on a Minimalist black-striped acrylic ground.

At once beautiful and eerie, oversized close-ups of red rose petals suggest giant labia, in works that explore the inner recesses of primordial nature as well as the boundaries of perspectival space. Closely toned red roses devoid of stems and leaves are arranged horizontally in Red Angels, 1995, so that each flower overlaps, with none being revealed in its entirety. The mass of sensuous petals rests, overlaps, and casts shadows on a white ledge.

In the series “Endless Horizontals,” 1994, Nakagawa’s use of the unfurling scroll suggests an unceasing cycle of birth, death, and regeneration. After employing a woodworker to make scrolled armatures from original designs on rolled drawing paper, Nakagawa paints his still lifes on the inside and outside of the prestretched linen. In Desert Rose: Endless Horizontal XI, 1994, two roses, composed of almost monochromatic tones of grays, blacks, and greens, are presented frontally and from the side against a textured background featuring swirling patterns of desert sands. The ground (as in the more heavily textured and impastoed Case Rose: Endless Horizontal VII, 1992), has been partially fashioned by Nakagawa’s ritual “earth dance,” in which he places the large canvas on the floor, covers it with paint, and rolls on the canvas to make an imprint on the painting. The result is a puckered texture, like that of raked sands in a Zen garden.

Nakagawa’s work combines his love for still-life painting and for Jackson Pollock’s heavily loaded canvases, a meeting of traditions he once referred to as a “borderline between the real and the abstract.” By reducing his motif to the oversized still life devoid of other props or decorative distraction in the rose and earth paintings, he successfully captures the sensuality and Zen-like mysteries of inner and outer nature.

Francine Koslow Miller