Kohei Nawa, Throne (g/p_ boy), 2017 3-D printed object, gold leaf, 55 x 30 x 23 1/4".

Kohei Nawa, Throne (g/p_ boy), 2017 3-D printed object, gold leaf, 55 x 30 x 23 1/4".

Kohei Nawa

Kohei Nawa’s exhibition “Throne” had an air of exacting elegance: Large-format works from the 2011– series “Direction”—canvases covered with diagonal bands of black on white—shared the gallery with slender sculptures from the “Ether” series, 2014–, made up of austere vertical sculptures structured via a rhythmic sequence of bulging and tapered segments. At first glance, everything suggested an experimentally inflected Minimalism. Other works, however, were at odds with this initial impression, most prominently _Throne (g/pboy), 2017, a hieratic golden sculpture crowned with spikes, from which the show took its title. Reminiscent at once of a traditional Asian cult object and an item from the decor for a fantasy film, it sharply departed from the prevailing austere simplicity.

Such contrariness, however, is key to Nawa’s art. Its discontinuities, parallelisms, and ostensible contradictions—which the Kyoto, Japan–based artist serves up in wide variety—steer the beholder from issues of style and classical aesthetic discourses toward more open-ended reflections. Nawa’s work does not primarily revolve around questions of form; it may not even be all that invested in issues immanent to art. It is rooted in a deeply felt embrace of tradition and nature and its formal rigor serves mostly as a lens on broader thematic concerns explored by way of painting, sculpture, kinetic installations, and even ambitious architectural projects such as the Kohtei pavilion near Hiroshima, completed in 2016. Often partaking of the beauty of the accidental, of rampant and amorphous proliferation, these projects achieve a unique stringency and concentration in hybrid artificial-organic structures that examine and indeed celebrate nature as symbol and creation even as they evince Nawa’s interest in contemporary science, technology, and digital-imaging processes.

The black diagonal bands and stripes of varying width in the “Direction” paintings might bring to mind Concrete art à la Max Bill. In reality, they are the result less of compositional sophistication than of an elementary principle of nature: gravity. Nawa makes them by letting specially made black paint flow down tilted and rotated canvases, thus performing a reduction of the act of painting that emphasizes process and repetition over individuality and subjective expression. Process is transmuted into form, repetition, flow. These concerns resurface throughout Nawa’s oeuvre. An especially striking example, not included in this show, is the installation Force, 2015, in which black silicone oil continually streams down from the ceiling in thin rivulets that collect in a pool in a realization of the paradoxical idea of material frozen in perpetual motion.

By contrast, Throne (g/p_ boy) is a mythical emblem rather than the manifestation of a process. As if it were a Buddhist statue, it loomed in a kind of inner sanctum at the head of the gallery. The 3-D-printed object, entirely coated with gold leaf, seems symmetrical at first glance. Yet the bottom half is irregular in form, covered with bulges resembling those that characterize the artist’s amorphous sculptures and installations. Given the complex relief of the gleaming surface, one might almost overlook the tiny silvery figure of a child cradled within it—a representation, Nawa explains, of humanity, a roughcast creature whose development is far from complete, embedded in the seat and symbol of its reign as though in an all-powerful machine. The piece thus articulates a rather somber view of the future: “The progress of computers and artificial intelligence is accelerating,” the artist recently noted, “and if they reach the stage where they boast absolute intelligence, society and whole nations are likely to blindly follow them. This work attempts to express that premonition as an immense floating throne.” Despite his willingness to take his artmaking out of his own hands, this potential abnegation of human volition clearly concerns him: A towering thirty-four-foot-tall version of the piece, titled Throne, 2018, is on view in Paris through mid-January of next year, installed under the Louvre’s glass pyramid.

Jens Asthoff

Translated from German by Gerrit Jackson.