Rakuko Naito & Sono Kuwayama
On ViewAlison Bradley Projects
November 4 – December 11, 2021
New York, NY
On ViewKi Smith Gallery
Sono Kuwayama: Chiasmus
October 21 – December 5, 2021
New York, NY
This exhibition of nine works by Japanese artist Rakuko Naito now on view at Alison Bradley Projects in Chelsea reveals a story that defines her aspirations from the late 1950s to the present. It is the story of an emigrant artist who moved with her husband, the artist Tadaaki Kuwayama, from their homeland in East Asia to New York City. It was here that Naito discovered her direction as an artist. There is a Japanese term used to describe traditional painting. It is called Nihonga. This is what she studied in Tokyo prior to her arrival here in 1958. Although Naito had familiarized herself with Western-style art, most of what was called “art” in New York at that time functioned in a very different way from the figurative paintings of Nihonga.
While her affiliation with Nihonga was still present upon her arrival in New York, Naito began moving quickly toward acrylic painting on canvas, which the artist understood as “American material” given that the art materials available in Japan at that time were very different from what she found in New York. During this early period of the mid-1960s, Naito became acquainted with various painters, including Sam Francis. The concept of showing works from the early period of her career was decided at the outset by the gallerist Alison Bradley.
Her first important exhibition in New York was at the prestigious World House Gallery on Madison Avenue at 78th Street, designed by the architect Frederick Kiesler. The important transformative development made apparent in the paintings of Naito during the early 1960s are represented by two of the largest and earliest works included in this current exhibition, namely, RN1134–66 and RN268–66, both painted in 1966. The decision to show these along with two other smaller scale hard-edge geometric paintings was made directly by the curator, Gabriela Rangel.
In addition to the paintings, Rakuko Naito has presented two wire mesh cubes here: RNCUBE0–99 (1999), in which a smaller paper cube is placed in the center of the mesh, and RNCUBE3–02 (2002), subtly divided into quadrants. One of the most elegant works in the show, titled Shadow, RN2418–91 (1991), is an abstract photocollage in which a coat of nearly invisible oil paint covers a photograph of four organic shapes. Many similar works were produced during the early 1990s.
Finally, in the small entryway leading into the gallery are two relatively recent works. The first, RN2512–4–1/2–05 (2005), consists of Indian cotton balls mixed in wax and applied to paper that covers a 12 1/2-inch square panel. The second, RN710–1/4–1–1/2–21 (2021), is a repetitive sequence of Japanese cut paper with burnt edge stripes placed horizontally, also within a square panel.
While each of the works chosen for this exhibition points toward a distinct—can we say “original”?—direction taken by Naito during the course of her career, one might be hesitant to call her show a retrospective. How is it possible to show six decades of work? In this exhibition, each of the nine works functions as a sign that suggests and condenses various directions the artist’s work has taken over several years. Having seen this exhibition more than once, there is little doubt that Rakuko Naito delivers the message that quality continues to outweigh volume. This exhibition is stripped down to its qualitative essentials, both in terms of form and of what Naito’s work is about. The lapidary selection on view here makes it very clear why in recent years Naito has begun to receive wider exposure.
The work of Sono Kuwayama—Naito’s daughter—is also currently on view here in New York, in an exhibition of mixed media sculpture that reveals a compelling and independent voice. The exhibition is spread across the Ki Smith Galleries on East 3rd and East 4th Streets, in close proximity to one another on the Lower East Side. The installations of Kuwayama’s sculpture in each gallery are closely related to one another. In fact, they are nearly the same. While the artist’s work might be understood as somewhere between sculpture and mixed media, their fundamental geometric appearance seems to defy any fixed category. The artist’s conception encourages us to come to terms with her work not only as an entity that clings to the wall, but as a work we can remove and explore without worrying too much about what it is.
While these painted wooden forms initially appear static, the viewer is invited to handle them and explore their interiors. Inside these seemingly externally-oriented forms, other components are waiting to be seen that involve organic and irregular materials unrelated to what appears hanging on the wall. The geometric or cubic aspect of Kuwayama‘s work is small-scale in a manner that suggests tactility. The individual cubic elements in her installations measure either four or six inches on a side. There are more asymmetrical works as well, such as Untitled (Burn Through 5) (2021), which measures roughly 9 by 9 by 11 inches. These nonetheless suggest a predetermined structure from the outset. While the exterior of Kuwayama’s forms are fundamentally cubist, the interior offers a visual resonance that works on a completely different level—a more intensely physical level. In The Primacy of Perception, philosopher Merleau-Ponty offers the following conundrum: “There is no vision without thought: but it is not enough to think in order to see. Vision is conditioned thought; it is born ‘as occasioned’ by what happens in the body; it is ‘incited’ to think by the body.”
For Kuwayama, the geometry hanging on the wall has little reason to exist in that position other than to take it down and explore the network of material possibilities that give it meaning through thought and action. Even her cubes incorporating copper and silver raise the question as to how one material interacts with the other. How does Untitled (Copper) (2021)—made with milk paint, sand from Wadi Rum, and copper leaf—function in relation to Untitled (Silver) (2021), made from milk paint with brazilwood and silver leaf? Whether the cubic evidence is on the wall or in the hands of the recipient, we must ask where the experience goes in the imagination. How do the physical components of the work engage a process of thought?
The work of Sono Kuwayama deals with the potential of form. It raises the question as to how we understand the elements within a structure, whether they are logically unified or illogically diverse. The cube—both assembled and disassembled—is the fundamental basis of her inquiry. By taking it off the wall to explore the interiors constructed with nails, cotton thread, safflower, sheep’s wool, Aracuna egg shells, and dyed mohair, we get some idea of Kuwayama’s aim in exploring organic materials removed from their normal use. The deconstruction of the cube is, in fact, the raison d’etre of her project. In doing this, she restores a sensibility of play often lost in our cubistic future.