New York

E’wao Kagoshima, Until Sleep, 1996, oil and acrylic on canvasboard, 20 × 32". From the series “Etymological Paintings,” 1991–97.

E’wao Kagoshima, Until Sleep, 1996, oil and acrylic on canvasboard, 20 × 32". From the series “Etymological Paintings,” 1991–97.

E’wao Kagoshima

Born in Niigata, Japan, in 1945, E’wao Kagoshima has been a New Yorker since 1976. Working in a manner that combined aspects of Symbolism and Pop into an unstable cocktail of seductive decadence and a (possibly naive?) cosmic consciousness, he made a discreet reputation for himself in the East Village of the ’80s when the artist, writer, and all-around impresario Nicolas Moufarrege drafted him into his self-proclaimed Mutant International, a group of artists who, when hymned in Moufarrege’s inimitably vatic and enthusiastic style, sound less like members of an art movement than like a bunch of rebel superheroes in some Marvel Comics remake of Farid ud-Din Attar’s twelfth-century allegorical poem The Conference of the Birds. Writing about Kagoshima’s work in 1983, Moufarrege observed that “an intensive life in one space provokes the desire for life in the other. Melting into the basic element is a necessary death.”

Some time later—perhaps after Moufarrege died of aids in 1985—Kagoshima began to register the dualism his friend had perceived in a strikingly blunt fashion, creating horizontal paintings on paired canvas boards. The left half of each work would be in color, executed in a painterly manner, often presenting a landscape or still life in a state of lyrical dissolution; the right offered up an eerily primitive-looking black-and-white pictograph rendered in a flat, graphic style: a single masklike head, one-eyed, with a leering skull for a mouth.

After making those pieces, Kagoshima seemed to withdraw from the scene, exhibiting little during the 1990s and hardly at all in the 2000s. Thus the twelve “Etymological Paintings” in his most recent show, all dated between 1991 and 1997, illustrated a period little known even among those who followed his career earlier on, let alone those who noticed later, when his art slowly became more visible after his inclusion in the 2010 edition of MoMA PS1’s “Greater New York” survey. In the paintings here, he employed the same diptych-like format he used in the late ’80s—but the imagery that might have occasioned the chromatic fantasies on the left has completely dissipated into the sheer, lubricious movement of paint, with high-key colors colliding into discordant jumbles that managed to resolve themselves—on continued scrutiny—into a sort of rude harmony. The black-and-white heads on the right, by contrast, have become more elaborate: Each big-eared, cyclopean character now sports a heart-shaped headdress decorated with a scene of animal life, as if it were out of a children’s book—something from the era of William Nicholson, perhaps. Most of the tableaux were cheery: In one, a stork presented a rose to a turtle (Finally Alive, 1991); elsewhere, a happy ape plucked fruit from a tree (Peace Moment, 1995), while a bird and bear shared a relaxed conversation in Until Sleep, 1996. But crueler spectacles also were in the show: Take Wild Summer, 1994, which shows a bird of prey grasping a fish in both claws. In these, as in his earlier works, Kagoshima keeps in close proximity (as Moufarrege understood) the spiritual dyads of vitality and death, innocence and morbidity, comfort and threat. But how they might parallel Kagoshima’s formal dualities of color versus black and white, painterliness versus linearity, and abstraction versus images remains moot. In the end, all dichotomies meet on a single plane.