Art Fair Tokyo 2020
April 23 - April 30
Hong Kong & Taipei
Born in 1984, the contemporary Japanese artist Keigo Nakamura, utilises classical brushstrokes in a contemporary style to present new possibilities of painting. The miniature size and scale of the works implies how small human beings are in the universe with the exquisite brushworks, this refreshing outlook is constant in his works that remains after long periods of observation and research.
Awareness of the Self
Upon first inspection, Keigo Nakamura’s works seem to be cute, after close examination, the surface appears to be introverted, however, under the façade of solitude, there is unexpected depth and optimistic brightness. The calm stuffed cat or bear, looking at the candlelight, as if thinking, leading the viewers into the picture to reason the subject’s self awareness, in fact, the artist has cleverly used the setting in the paintings to created a projection of the mind to the audience, giving the depicted subjects life and abundant sentiments.
Self awareness is a pivotal structural lighthouse of the human mind, the artist has placed the characters in front of desserts with lit candles, indirectly personifying them, giving them seemingly self-aware looks. What is worth mentioning is, in such a still life composition, the religious point of view is implied, parallel to the divine plan, in fact, all has been decided in advance in the grand scheme of all things.
Nakamura painted his largest painting to date in 2016, the image, a cat figurine faces the reflection on a metal surface, the metal container and its own shadows on the wall, ostensibly simple but mysterious. Similar in his other recent works, the candlelight is the sole source of light, the source of shadow, upon viewing a scene like this, can the cat figuring tell among itself, and its reflections, the shadow of the reflection and its own shadow? Perhaps these four individually represents self awareness on different levels.
Nakamura has employed various symbolisms from different contexts of cultures, as a contemporary Japanese artist, Kawaii culture is an important source of inspiration. The miniature paintings with a sweet overtone of subject provide a visual microcosm of happiness that is precise, which is what people usually call ‘a little happiness’. This adorable culture forms an tremendous contrast to the extreme, while at the same time an enticing point of entry.
Delectableness and the longing to be loved, Nakamura’s works point out issues in the contemporary society in a succinct way, in a time with technological advances where everyone has at least one electronic device, who would still desire a stuffed animal? It has become part of history, symbolizing the evolution of human interaction, the act of playing with a doll itself is meant to be solitary, from such mind-set, the artist presents the change of culture that is not necessarily a conclusion toward a certain angle, but rather, an open discussion and rationale.
Kawaii culture is the product of rapidly manufactured cultures, producing the direction of a pseudo-fetishization of youth and cuteness, this has drastically changed the way people interact with each other and the expected social behavior. Nakamura’s paintings have formed the personified material lust under this preexisting background, at the same time, bringing back blissful childhood memories. The superficially banal and adorable surface encumbers various questions, inviting the viewers to ponder together, to breath and relax under the swift pressures, reevaluate the key values of society.
Upon initial visual contact to Nakamura’s petite paintings, the influences from classical art are evident. For example, chiaroscuro, a technique developed during the Renaissance is an obvious influence on Nakamura’s works, reminiscent of Da Vinci, Caravaggio, and Rembrandt’s masterpieces.
The idea of volume and form defined by light and darkness is very attractive, Nakamura’s use of chiaroscuro help intensify the importance of light, which further mystifies the tension in his imagery. This is clear in his recent works which he starts his works on a monochromatic background before creating contrast.
As there is a long tradition in still life paintings, Nakamura’s oeuvre has created a personal style, all at the same time echoing artists like Picasso and Morandi. According to Rémy G. Saisselin’s essay titled: Still-Life Paintings in a Consumer Society, he presented the four phases of still life painting, which are: “(1) the ‘vanity’ picture of the 17th century, (2) the autonomous still life of the 18th century, (3) the still lifes non-illustrative of discourse by painters such as Manet, Whistler and Cézanne in the 19th century and (4) the Pop art still lifes dictated by the imperatives of a 20th-century consumer society.”
Nakamura’s works, interestingly, reflects the history of still life paintings, with the Kawaii culture referencing the vanity picture of the contemporary 17th century, and the somehow independent phase of the 18th century, his works are also very much affected by the romanticisms of the 19th century and the commercialised world of the 20th century. In a combination of hybrid elements, he has successfully created a new chapter of still life art in the 21st century.
Art historian Paul Barolsky has argued that still life paintings are “understood as commentaries on the vanity of all things, on transience and death…” Looking at Nakamura’s works, it is difficult not to think about the symbolisms and its underlying meanings. Burning candles represent the fleeting time, inevitable end of life in a fixed moment that is seemingly emotionless. The implied festivity of celebratory symbols such as cakes with candles and shadows and halos are all visible traits to be decoded.
This duality of simplicity and complexity is one of the most alluring qualities of Nakamura’s works, through his works he poses simple questions on life that has no definitive answer. It is an open dialogue that awaits the viewers to engage with the subject, which opens up the path in depth both conceptually and visually.
Beyond Still Life
Nakamura’s oeuvre presents not only the reflections of the human condition in meticulously crafted scenarios; he is able to transcend life into still life, and vice versa. This duality of viewpoints create depth on both sides of the spectrum, like infinite mirrored images. The paradox of life and/or the absence of life becomes even more ambiguous in terms of making out the edge of rationality.
In the French language, still life literally translates into nature morte, which means nature and death, the personification that metamorphosed in Nakamura’s characters, weather it’s a stuffed cat, bear, duck or rabbit figurines, act as a microcosm of society in resonance to history, current events, and imagination.
In an almost religious point of view, Nakamura employed light and darkness, juxtaposing the brittleness of human life. Disguised as seemingly innocuous objects such as slices of desserts and toys, in the sheer pettiness of the subjects of the paintings, the artist pose questions of existentialism.
The best approach to understand Nakamura’s visual linguistics is to balance the translation of the motifs and the direct visual impression. The light of a candle is fragile yet powerful at the same time, make a wish, then blow it out.