Arranged realism

AN artist's work reflects his own personal choices. A work of art evolves through a long series of electives. There is always the selection of what to paint and of how to paint. A painter may follow the exact style and traditions of the art he has been taught. But even if he should follow them with unoriginal literalness, that, too, is a type of choice. The painter may modify the style he has learned into a personal idiom. He may reject it entirely to follow another mode altogether. One may suppose that it is easier for a painter to cross cultures than for a writer like Joseph Conrad, who, to become a master of the English novel, had to replace his native Polish language with English and even to Anglicize his name. Mary Cassatt, who came from a prominent Philadelphia family, never ceased to think of herself as an American, although as an artist she is wholly and properly identified with the French Impressionists.

The meticulously rendered still life on this page is the work of a painter who is one of a small number of expatriate Japanese artists who have joined the American art scene. After studying art in Japan, Naoto Nakagawa left there at age 18. He then attended the Brooklyn Museum Art School. He has now lived in the United States more years than he lived in Japan. Like Cassatt, he does not return frequently to his native land. In Japan he was taught Western art as well as the traditional sumi, the ink-and-brush painting that we think of as ``Oriental.'' Coming to New York in 1962, he was exposed to all the trends of the 1960s, and before still life absorbed his attention, he tried Pop Art successfully.

His still lifes are large and complex. ``Winter Still Life,'' at approximately 4 feet by 4 feet, is on the small side. In a recent exhibition at the Japan Society gallery, the gallery ceiling had to be raised above one of them that is more than 9 feet high, and the biggest is a huge 7 feet high by almost 10 feet wide. The Dutch Renaissance painters who introduced the still life genre with their ``luncheon pieces'' would have opened their eyes at that one.

Although Nakagawa's style is best described under ``hard-edged realism,'' the assembled objects are not impersonal but subjective and even romantic. It is usual in a work of art, in poetry and novels, and much more so in nonverbal arts, that the artist may be demonstrating one concept for himself while members of his audience perceive the work in slightly or in vastly different lights, according to their own individual responses.

To the viewer this lovely painting evokes a story, a personal history. One might conjecture that the bicycle represents the open days of summer when that snowy landscape that we see outside the window is bright green and the roads invite the artist to leave his work for a vigorous ride into the hills. The violin might suggest long evenings of winter music.

THE artist's intent, while equally personal, is more deliberately philosophical than that. Because he is very conscious of symbols, the canvas as a whole is his realization of harmony between nature and man-made objects. Although many of his canvases are very vividly colored, this concept led him to an almost monochromatic color scheme. The large reddish brown clump of earth in the foreground resting on a table covered with a snow-white tablecloth keys that color scheme. Together these elements indicate the unity of the inside with the outside landscape. Even the red of the bicycle is subdued. Only the small house that we see out the window nestled into the Vermont hillside is a pale, clear yellow. All else is rendered in the subtle browns of winter. However, the canvas is not dull-looking, but warm with a lively sense of being.

While in some of Nakagawa's still-life arrangements the objects are juxtaposed in tension to one another, here they are all in accord. And the artist feels himself to be in harmony with the objects and with nature. He refers to the 13th-century Chinese painters who felt themselves ``dissolved in nature.'' So the rocks represent the earth, fragments of creation that were here long before us. They also are to present the concepts of stability and permanence. Lovingly detailed rocks appear in many of Nakagawa's recent canvases.

To him the violin ``symbolizes the music of nature and the music of man.'' He notes that he paints only objects with which he is very familiar and with which he feels comfortable. His mother plays the violin, so it is an object with which he has had a long and affectionate association. In the composition it plays a dual role as the bearer of very personal connotations and of very universal ones.

The pair of binoculars resting on the center frame of the right-hand window he calls ``the touch of the artist,'' a sign by which he enters the picture. As he wants his paintings to be as ``real as possible,'' he uses binoculars to check distant details of the landscape. He recalls that Impressionist Claude Monet once said something to the effect that if a distant tree looked like a blur, he painted a blur. Realist Nakagawa strives for a painting that is as accurate as he can make it, so the binoculars determine the exact manner in which the branches of a faraway tree are growing. No blurs for him!

An amusing anecdote reveals much of his passion for exactness. For all the formidable size of his canvases, Naka-gawa works in the traditional manner of setting up the objects in the exact arrangement in his studio. More than one of his still lifes features fresh bluefish on a platter. His painstaking acrylics require months to paint - if he used oils they would doubtless take years. The first time he used bluefish, the neighbors of his studio loft in the Manhattan area called TriBeCa complained after seven or eight days that the condition of the fish was becoming very evident to them.

So, after disposing of that portion of his arrangement, Nakagawa went to the nearby fish market with a yardstick and patiently measured every bluefish in the day's catch until he had acquired 20, each of which measured exactly 30 inches. These he stowed away in his freezer so he would have enough replacements to complete his work without offending his neighbors' noses.

So this artist's choice is overwhelmingly for realism - one might say, American realism. But Nakagawa says that his selection of objects for their universal meaning derives from his early training in Japanese brush painting with its Oriental tradition of philosophic content. He sees no conflict and no need to follow its fluid and summary style. This may give us a clue to culture-crossers, because Mary Cassatt largely painted her American relatives and friends, while her style was that of her French Impressionist colleagues.

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