Washington, DC

Tom Nakashima

Anton Gallery

When Tom Nakashima moved his studio from Washington, DC, to the Virginia countryside, he became intrigued by the giant piles of brush and trees he saw in the middle of cleared fields, silhouetted against the open sky in an otherwise unspoiled landscape. What initially caught his eye and set him to work was the interesting tangle of abstract shapes these heaps presented. But they also betray something ominous. Like that ambiguous terrain between city and country—the area the French call the banlieu, where the inhabitants are neither urban dwellers nor rural folk—these tree piles are the by-products of unchecked suburban sprawl. The twisting branches will survive only in the work of the artist; the fate of the countryside itself is yet to be decided.

Nakashima’s recent exhibition included nineteen close-ups of tree piles, ranging from small, framed intaglio prints to nearly life-size paper collages on unstretched canvas. The artist starts by photographing a tree pile, manipulating the image digitally, and making a new print, on which he draws a grid. He then transfers the detail from one square on the print to the corresponding square on what will be the finished work. For the huge Stewart’s Sticks, 2001, Nakashima stained strips of newspaper with thinned acrylic and collaged them onto canvas, working one square at a time. Going from half-inch squares on the source photograph to eight-inch squares on the canvas allows him to add sticks and branches absent from the original photograph. For two works titled Studies for Stewart’s Sticks, 1999, he primed the paper white, then painted each square black and quickly “drew” the image by scraping through the acrylic to expose the white ground, again finishing one square before starting another. In the large collage Huddled Masses, 2001, Nakashima was even more restrictive in the methods he established for himself: Only after completing a square did he attach it to the appropriate space on the canvas.

A near parallel in terms of method may be Chuck Close’s gridded portraits, in which each square receives one or more airbrush blasts of paint in what is essentially a handmade digitized image. But Nakashima isn’t concerned with referencing technology and digitization processes; he embraces the grid because it offers a Zenlike discipline that forces him to make each component square a composition in its own right. And while using the grid to transfer and enlarge images is a centuries-old practice, completing each square before going on to the next, as Nakashima does, is not. The result is not without metaphorical implications. The hundreds of smaller images preserve the grid while also submitting to the whole, just as land itself divides into parcels, each separate but also part of a larger system. If parts and whole do not mesh, everything suffers. In these complex images Nakashima has sutured space and form, surface and matter in a delicate, even fragile balance that echoes the natural environment and the social order that threatens it.

Howard Risatti