Naoto Kawahara

Painting is very popular among today’s young artists, but in an idiom rather different from that of the various revivals we’ve witnessed since the ’70s. It’s no longer about invoking aura, daring to stand alongside the great figures of the century, or breaking “the hated form of real things,” as Malevich put it. Instead, there is an effort to retain photographic framing without losing the pleasures specific to the slow consummation of a picture, not to mention those associated with tactility. But there’s something else: The return of painting does not signal a debate over the prevalence of a particular medium or the importance of technological novelty, which is the sign of a profound change. As painting and photography begin to communicate rather than compete, they become able to use the other’s idioms reciprocally and inventively.

The case of Naoto Kawahara is symptomatic. At the age of five he began studying painting at a venerable school, where he learned the subtleties and skills of a practice rooted in the centuries. Just as he was poised to be granted the rank of master, he abandoned the field for industrial design, a profession in which he achieved tremendous success. Later, he left Japan for Italy, and here he developed a style of painting that precisely and empathetically conjoins two traditions, two passions, two formal languages.

All his canvases have their genesis in Polaroids that Kawahara takes for himself, as if they were a sort of diary of his time in Italy. The paintings emerge from these photos. They have simple, direct titles: Sonnellino (Nap), 2000—a young girl with her eyes closed, blinded by the camera’s flash; Ti amo (I love you), 2000—two pigeons, backlit against the sky; Mandarini (Mandarins), 2000—a plastic bag with fruit; Gonna (Skirt), 2000—the legs of a kneeling girl, poking out from beneath the hem of her skirt. The paintings are so perfect, their surfaces so refined and self-effacing, that we instinctively feel they are photos—even the size of the canvases recalls a standard photographic format. But something disturbs the viewer, warns us not to stop at the first glance, but to move closer and look more carefully at these snapshots. The sense of the everyday is important; it is a vision of the present, but one needs to see its speed and forget it. Then the perfect skin of a painting appears, slightly opaque like the Polaroids, but with a tactility that belongs to painting. Only the viewer’s complicity reveals the long, obsessive labor devoted to each work by this virtuoso of the brush. This complicity demands the kind of critical reflection that does not moralize about speed, reproducibility, or the Japanese obsession with photography, but finds a kinship with something that comes from afar and is expressed not by the technical means employed, but by the passion that anyone can find within oneself in relating one’s own experience. In this way Kawahara finds his personal link between photography and painting, and between his training in traditional Japanese paintings and contemporary visual languages both Western and Eastern.

Francesca Pasini

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore