Hideyuki Nagasawa: Rich paintings of infinite layers / Kazuhiro Yamamoto


Hideyuki Nagasawa is an artist who definitely emphasizes the touch and stroke of paint, or mati?re, in his work. Anchored in this painterly style, Nagasawa is a legitimate heir of modernist painting. Nonetheless, he does not limit himself to a fundamentalist approach to modernism but pursues innovation in the very principles of the structure of painting. Like modern physics, which seeks both a microscopic and a macroscopic understanding of the universe, Nagasawa’s work can be seen as encompassing two distinct systems, one representing a quantum theory type of approach and the other, the theory of relativity. Just as both of these theories are ways to understand the universe, the art of painting is also capable of exploration that can be either microscopic or macroscopic in its approach.

1. Extension of painting in the twenty-first century

A member of the Feuerbach family of painters and philosophers once said, “In front of a painting, there must be a chair.” A chair in front of a painting ensures that there will be a proper distance between the work and the viewer for the sake of art appreciation. This nineteenth century intellectual concept would be considered invalid if the viewer were located several hundred meters away from the work, or kilometers away. However, for quite some time we have been accustomed to “distance viewing” (tele-vision) as a way to view objects from distances of several thousand kilometers away. This is generally thought to apply to photography, film, and the realm of digital communications. In other words, “distance viewing” by means of some medium is not considered to be applicable in the realm of paintings. However, one of the most important issues to be addressed in painting today is that of variation in the distance between the work and the viewer, or expansion and contraction of some fixed distance. The reason is that a proper distance between the painting and the viewer is thought to be a basic precondition. Even today, very few artists see any problem with this attitude.
Meanwhile, regarding the conditions for appreciation of films and videos, the viewer is rarely in a standing position. The presence of a chair or sofa is an essential precondition. In terms of classical esthetics, this signifies that painting can be classified as a spatial art while film and video, like music, are temporal arts. Now in the twenty-first century, the situation regarding images is too complex to allow for classification according to the stereotypes of classical esthetics. Taking well-attended art museums as an example, paintings are hung in a horizontal row on the wall, and viewers move from right to left (or left to right) while maintaining an equal distance from the wall. This forms a relationship between unmoving objects and moving viewers. However, if the movement variable is replaced, the situation is the same as that of an unmoving viewer who is located in front of an unmoving video monitor, watching images that scroll horiz ontally across the monitor.
It is likely that only a handful of the richest people, such as oil kings of the Middle East, Texas or Russia, are capable of avoiding these situations by placing their chair or sofa in a suitable location to appreciate a favorite work of art. If we are only separated from a work of art by distance, and no other physical barriers, we can obtain a proper viewing distance by moving either the painting or the viewer in a car, airplane, or other means of transportation; we can use optical devices such as telescopes; or we can use the Internet or other means of telecommunications to obtain a proper distance.

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The work of Hideyuki Nagasawa in the twenty-first century deals with the problem of distance in painting. It addresses the relationship between a work of art and the viewer in a very intellectual and orthodox manner. By “orthodox,” I do not mean following along a branch in the history of painting, but seeking the edge of the main stem of development in the history of painting.
If we take the concept of viewing while in a standing position, a condition for the appreciation of paintings, and attempt to apply it to films and videos, we will realize that although this applies to television viewing on the street fifty years ago, or television displays in today’s appliance stores, clearly these instances do not constitute thorough appreciation. In this era of images, the condition of time is very important for paintings, compared to projected image media. Here, by “time” I do not mean the concept suggested by everyday life or historical timetables, but the time needed to appreciate a painting. This is mediated by distance from the work and the action of movement by the viewer. Distance and movement refer to parameters of space and time, in which {time x velocity = distance} and {velocity = distance / time}.
To repeat, for a painting to become meaningful as a painting, there is a precondition that no barriers can exist between the painting and the viewer. There can be innumerable types of barriers, including crowds in an art museum, or the economic barrier of an admission fee in which the building’s walls separate the viewer from the painting. However, for our purposes we will imagine a case in which there are no barriers whatsoever. The problem now becomes the outright distance between the work and the viewer.

2. Distance zooming in paintings

Paintings and projected images differ with regard to their media, including the difference between static and dynamic pictures. However, they also differ with regard to affordance, the quality by which they are actualized: In the case of a painting, the substance of its image is formed by the reflection of ambient light around it; while in the case of a projected image, that image itself emits the light which forms its substance. This is a manifestation of the differing surface characteristics of these kinds of works. While the surface of a painting includes a unique layer of paint materials which is not easily copied as part of its substance, the surface of a projected image is formed by a mass-produced product such as a monitor, projector, or screen (a word which can mean either “the silver screen” or a kind of barrier or shield). This corresponds to the situation regarding a copy of a painting. An actual painting possesses greater uniqueness than other forms of image art in the nature of its surface. However, now that many paintings are appreciated in copied form, not only as prints but also as projected images, this uniqueness has become a kind of meta-substance.
This gives rise to our question regarding paintings, namely the difference between a copy and the original. Ordinarily, one speaks of differences in media in terms of the difference between an oil painting and an ink drawing; but in the area of prints and projected images, there lies a hidden question of expansion and contraction which is even more important. For example, if one considers a painting in terms of the normal distance between a book and its reader, the distance between the painting and its viewer is changed into a different dimension. However, it would be a mistake to think that the painting cannot be appreciated in this way. To some extent, a painting can even be appreciated in copied form. This is appreciation at the stage of recognizing the painting’s motifs and determining its visual configuration. However, the viewer of a copy is unable to perceive the touch and stroke of mati?re which is formed only by the unique medium of a painting. The unique mati?re of a painting cannot be appreciated by way of a copy. Even more importantly, the viewer stands at a different distance to perceive the relationship between a painting’s motifs and visual configuration in its overall picture, and to observe the painting medium itself. The viewer naturally stands farther away for the former and closer for the latter.
Examining Nagasawa’s paintings in detail in this kind of modern image environment, we see in his “Small and large/near and far” series that although the motifs are indeed enlarged, there is no enlargement with regard to the touch and stroke of the primary layer (unique paint layer) of the surface which forms the painting. In the secondary layer (information layer; the layer which is the same as a copy), it appears that the basic size has been enlarged, as in a photograph or a copy. However, the touch and stroke which form the overall surface of the primary layer remain unchanged in size. In other words, no dilution has occurred in the layer which is purely a painting. In Nagasawa’s paintings, this process of enlarging the motif without enlarging the basis of the painting is indicative of a decisive difference between electronic information media and paintings. For example, in the enlarged images which Sigmar Polke creates using a slide projecto r and copy machine, the dots are mechanically enlarged, and the primary layer is diluted through the use of a permeable support with the goal of making the painting itself transparent. In contrast, enlargement in Nagasawa’s paintings is not accomplished with the aid of a slide projector or other device, but by the artist’s own eyes and hands; that is, by painterly acts alone. Nagasawa expresses enlargement and non-enlargement at the same time without destroying the unique layer which distinguishes a painting. Gerhard Richter has also addressed the question of enlargement in paintings in relation to (reduced-scale) photographs. However, Richter’s photography-based paintings (Foto-Bild) mimic the surface or mati?re of a photograph although they are created using paint materials and brushes. This indicates a different intention than Nagasawa’s surfaces which are purely paintings.
To appreciate a painting, one needs to look at it close up to observe its mati?re, and then move a little further away to look at the whole picture, repeating this two-distance cycle multiple times. Nagasawa’s aim is create paintings which within themselves encompass this physical movement from near to far. This approach is more “pro-painting” than Polke’s work, which is reminiscent of projected image media. Nagasawa’s extremely “pro-painting” work is the result of having secured a position whereby the painting medium can be relativized with projected image media. This makes it possible to critique paintings by means of film and photographs, as a result of the very critical pursuit of a comparison between painting and the zoom function of a camera lens. In the present era, motion pictures and photographs have overwhelmed the past status of paintings in quantitative terms.
Our eyes do not have a zoom function. Instead, we have the biological function of moving our very bodies in order to move our field of vision. It is the same with paintings. We tend to think that paintings do not have a zoom function. In fact, this is not the case. The zoom function can be added to paintings. Further, Nagasawa’s paintings help us to understand that even before the emergence of photography and film, the zoom function was being used in paintings. From Nagasawa’s paintings, we learn that the creation of illusion and development of depth in paintings-including perspective techniques that were dependent on architectural principles, devastatingly criticized by Georg Baselitz-constitutes the zoom function which can be achieved by paintings themselves. For example, in Nagasawa’s “Membranes” series, consisting of round shapes of various sizes linked together, there are multiple layers, including some layers which juxtapose round shapes of the same size and other layers which juxtapose round shapes of differing sizes. The sizes of these round shapes are not produced mechanically in proportion to physical distance using a projector or copy machine; instead, they are arbitrarily created by the artist.
Unlike the pop art of the U.S. and Germany, which transposed the differences between a human and mechanical eye into the form of paintings, in Nagasawa’s paintings the final perceived state is calculated precisely by the artist’s eye, producing a result that is more pro-painting in nature. Since we see newspaper, magazine, and television images on an everyday basis, Polke, who used dots to address the issue of distance in paintings, is more important for us today than Seurat, who painted with dots to divide up colors. In contrast to these, Nagasawa’s work steadfastly holds to a multicolored mati?re that seems at first glance to form a single layer, while at the same time realizing a transformation into a multilayered painting that gives the viewer the transient experience of a zoom function. Taking this a step further, one could say that while Polke forcibly pursued transparency in paintings through the use of a transparent support, contour lin es, and so on, Nagasawa has achieved multilayered paintings that have a sense of transparency despite the use of traditional, opaque materials.

3. From paintings with depth to paintings of multilayered structure

Both Richter and Polke, albeit with different techniques, enlarged an original motif to the extent that it was no longer recognizable, diluting the information contained in the motif and demonstrating the fact that the representational and the abstract are not opposites, but instead are points on a continuum. However, this is an issue of recognizing the information layer of a painting; strictly speaking, it evades the issue of the unique layer which characterizes a painting. This is not homeless representation ; it signifies only that homeless enlargement inevitably transforms the representational into the abstract. Meanwhile, Nagasawa makes a point of contraposing the non-enlarged painting, or home, with paintings wherein this home has been enlarged. In this way, his work indicates that even if the information layer represented in a painting’s motif is diluted through enlargement, the painting continues to exist as a painting.
Nagasawa’s “1999 Paintings” series is equivalent to his “Membranes” series. Further, the “Small and large/near and far” series is also equivalent to both of these. They differ as to whether the configuration which draws the eye in the information layer is a round shape or an enlarged motif, but they share as a major theme the touch and stroke of paint (which Nagasawa refers to as nuri, or application); and they are consistent in that their structure firmly maintains this emphasis in the formation of the overall painting.
Also, the round shapes that Nagasawa paints are not flat, smooth circles of color like a photograph or a print. Instead, the viewer can clearly see horizontal, vertical, and diagonal brush strokes formed by a relatively hard brush. Nagasawa’s work always maintains these smallest components of paintings which can never be reproduced in other image media or information media besides paintings. This is also important in viewing the “Small and large/near and far” series when one seeks to appreciate the paintings in terms of the unique factor of paintings that is mati?re, putting aside for a time the question of the painting’s motif. The smoothly spread paint, along with the superb surface irregularities beneath it, create a mati?re that is peculiar to the paintings, achieving an effect that constantly maintains the viewer’s interest. Similarly, although circles of color can be reproduced by printing, prints in ordinary sizes can never reproduce the touch and stroke of these brushstrokes which beat out a reactive rhythm with the four sides of the canvas. The only way to perceive the true essence of a painting is to view it with the naked eye, unmediated. In his twenty-first century paintings as well, Nagasawa continues to emphasize this smallest unit.

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The discussion of colors is always a challenging issue for the recipient of a painting. In general, brighter colors appear closer, while colors that are less bright appear farther away. However, in his “Membranes” series, Nagasawa is making innovations even with regard to this general principle. The before/behind positional relationships among layers of linked round shapes contribute in the same way to the development of depth or thickness in the painting. Further, the active complexity of the before/behind relationships caused by a sense of permeability in a mesh formed by the layers of linked circles, as well as the before/behind relationships caused by differences in the brightness of the circles, make it difficult to visually determine the location of the painting’s base layer, thereby further multiplying the richness of the painting. A chaos of distances among the membranes (layers) is formed by the combined effect of layers of linked circ les of similar colors, layers of linked circles of the same size, and the before/behind relationships among the layers which are caused by distinctions among colors or distinctions among degrees of brightness; and the result is a richer painting.
Also noteworthy is the use of “painterly” colors in the “Membranes” series. The artist has given priority to the dynamics of colors that are characteristically used in paintings, instead of the colors that characterize elements of the natural world. Meanwhile, the colors in the “Small and large/near and far” series are close to our everyday conception of natural colors. Therefore, we can enjoy the differences between paintings that preserve the original small form and paintings that are enlarged, without becoming immersed in the enjoyable painterly colors as we do in the “Membranes” series. That is, we can appreciate the enlargement of the motif at the same time as non-enlargement of the primary painting layer. In this way, we can enjoy a journey of painting appreciation while standing before works hung on the same wall, without any physical movement on our own part. We also obtain the sense that an infinity of invisible layers exist between tw o juxtaposed paintings on a zoom continuum. This is demonstrated in Nagasawa’s works that depict cinematic zooming sequences in paintings.

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In both the “Membranes” series and the “Small and large/near and far” series, Nagasawa’s twenty-first century paintings evoke a light floating sensation. A former movie producer himself, Nagasawa knows how to take a step back from his own work and examine it from a critical distance with a sense of cool detachment. He has used this perspective, combined with a purely painterly medium, to offer a solution to the inevitable challenge which will follow a decline in the trend for paintings that imitate the mati?re of photography.

Kazuhiro Yamamoto
Member, International Association of Art Critics, Japan
Senior Curator, Tochigi Prefectural Museum of Fine Arts