Thursday, October 27, 2011


Followers of the photographic work of Patrick Nagatani will be pleased by the publication of Desire for Magic...

... by the University of New Mexico Art Museum. It is a comprehensive overview of this challenging and imaginative artist’s work, with key introductory essays focused not primarily on its chronological development, but on the recurring thematic issues pursued, some of them over decades. The result is a coffee table book that is rich with both illustration and thoughtful critical analysis.

Since his earliest work, an engagement with social and intellectual issues has been the hallmark of Nagatani’s art, along with a creative commitment to innovative formal challenges. The earliest "Polaroid Collaborations" (1983 – 1989) with the painter Andree Tracey (disclosure: my wife and I have two of these works in our own collection) took on the fears of nuclear and other environmental catastrophe in pictures that made an instantaneous record of settings that were painstakingly created in weeks of staging, combining painted backdrops, intricately suspended “flying” objects, and actual figures—usually including the artist himself as alarmed observer and recorder. The results are chaotic, melodramatic, electrifying… and hilarious. It’s a bemused, ironic take on the ease with which our species is now able to bring about its own destruction, as well as of the underlying psychological undercurrent of paranoia that destructive power can generate. Things fly apart, making manifest the insanity and chaos that actually, perhaps imminently, threaten our existence. The later “Nuclear Enchantment” series (1988 - 1993), is counterpointed in the book with lyrical texts by Joel Weishaus. It shifts the focus to the deserts of the Southwest, the location where nuclear weapons were developed, to explore links between the natural landscape, ethnic human identity, and the awful potential of the destructive power we have invented. We are reminded of J. Robert Oppenheimer's citation from the Bhagavad Gita, on watching the first atomic explosion: "Now I have become death, the destroyer of worlds."

The deserted landscape and the persistence of memory remain a preoccupation in Nagatani’s odyssey into his own family’s past in his series on the “Japanese-American Concentration Camps” of World War II (1993 – 1995). These melancholy scenes are not simply reminders of that inglorious chapter in our history; they are also expeditions into the artist’s own unconscious past, and an attempt to come to terms with lasting psychological wounds inherited from a previous generation. The legacy of past history is also the concurrent (and subsequent) theme in "Excavations" (1985 – 2007). As meticulously staged, in their own way, as the earlier scenes of nuclear holocaust, these more intimate works derive from the fictional inner dialogue between Nagatani and his alter ego, Ryoichi, a tongue-in-cheek takeoff of archeology as a scientific “rediscovery” of the past and a lyrical, literary riff on language as art in the form of pages from Ryoichi’s journals. Like all of Nagatani’s work, the series is multi-layered in image, association, social and historical reference, text and meaning.

From the artist’s recent personal encounter with grave medical issues, Nagatani’s early inroads into the "Chromatherapy" series—dating from 1978 and continuing through 2007—may seem eerily prophetic. These sometimes graphic, sometimes even lurid contemplations on the vulnerable human body exposed to the bleak, objective eye of modern medical technology are rendered in deep chiaroscuro with shockingly artificial highlights of radioactive color. They confront us unsparingly with the fearful prospect all of us must face—the prospect of disease and death—as well as with the equally repellent and sophisticated technology we humans have invented (vainly!) to stave them off. To contemplate these pictures is to be confronted with the susceptibility of flesh to disease and decay, and with our own inevitable mortality. “Therapy,” such as it is, is perhaps just another manifestation of that "Desire for Magic," though it turns out to be more a matter of coming to terms with the psychological and psychic implication of these truths about human frailty than of arriving at a “cure.” “Color” therapy, in this context, might be understood as a kind of aesthetic healing for the receptive, attentive mind.

After all this, at the end of the book—though also created over many years—Nagatani’s "Tape-estries" (1982 – 2008) bring us the relief of a certain visual serenity. Created for the camera, remarkably, with masking tape, this series presents us principally—though not exclusively—with images of Hindu and Buddhist deities, subdued in palette, respectful, meditative. They suggest a need on the artist’s part to achieve—and impart—an alternative vision, to balance out the persistent apprehension of chaos, danger, fragility and loss with the prospect of a lasting and reliable inner peace. It is, after all, the Buddhist view that suffering is an inevitable part of our human experience, but that there is a path, through meditation and eventual enlightenment, to the end of suffering. As I see it, the “Tape-estries” are a nice note on which to end the journey this visually compelling book, the story of an artist’s continuing, exhaustive search for the complex inner truths that govern his life and work.

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