Kohei Nawa, internationally known sculptor, described his current exhibition at Pace Gallery in Palo Alto in a very succinct way: “My idea is to make a connection/relationship between photography and sculpture.”
Sounds simple, but the 16 works of art in the show reference things as varied and complex as the Information Age, DNA technology, Steve Jobs and the impact of the iMac, ancient Japanese symbols and the science of optics. He manages to address all of these subjects in the black-and-white photographs, sculptures and paintings that comprise “PixCell_Moment,” on view through July 1.
Nawa clearly has an affinity with Palo Alto and Silicon Valley. His work was well-received in the Bay Area when he showed four years ago at Pace in Palo Alto and at the Fog + Art Fair in San Francisco, where his life-sized PixCell deer was the hit of the show. “He did so well last time,” said Pace Director Elizabeth Sullivan, “the community loved his work and I felt it was time to show him again.” She pointed out that the pieces in this exhibition were created specifically for this show and that the artist had a direct hand in the gallery installation.
Nawa, who lives in his native Japan, described how the pandemic curtailed his international travels to the United States and Europe, where he frequently exhibits his work. He has continued to teach as a professor at Kyoto University of the Arts and maintain Sandwich Inc., his studio — both of which required regular travel to Kyoto. During the over two-hour ride on the Shinkansen (high-speed bullet train) he was inspired to return to a medium he had used early in his career: photography. “In these two years, the train was quite empty because of COVID, so it was a perfect time to do this,” he said. Using a digital camera, Nawa created this series of Lambda C-type prints, a type of digital print, that captured fleeting views outside the windows as the train rushed by. The results are stretched-out, dizzying streaks of black lines that, although indiscernible, clearly reflect the passing landscape. These photographs should come with a disclaimer for those of us who experience motion sickness; they are quite disorienting.
Sullivan commented on how the artist was very “hands-on” with this series, actually working in the darkroom himself. “They are all original in that there is only one print,” she said, “like monoprints. They are really beautiful because they riff off his paintings.”
The three large-scale paintings, installed in the gallery’s front room, are entitled “Moment” and were created using a pouring process that was employed on paintings in his previous Pace show. The artist used a constructed device that pours ink under consistent pressure from one point on the canvas, which is angled, to another. The results are very precise and measured, but Nawa decided to introduce an element of chance into the otherwise rigid process by placing pins at random places on the canvas. The ink would skip over and beyond these barriers, creating tiny but perceptible gaps in the lines. “He was having fun with it, and it was a way to give a feeling of movement,” Sullivan said.
In this same space visitors can see two examples of Nawa’s PixCell series. By now a trademark style of the artist, these pieces begin with common objects that he transforms by covering them with transparent spheres of various sizes. Here, a tiny toy car and a 35 mm camera represent dated objects that have become magnified and distorted in such a way that we question our notions about optical perception.
Nawa has been working in this vein for some time, and said he was inspired after watching Steve Jobs introduce the iMac in 1998. He was in London as an exchange student and said “This memory is quite important to me.” Upon his return to Tokyo, he bought an iMac and made his first PixCell. Nawa realized that he did not want to pursue what he called high-tech media art. “I wanted to be more original, mixing traditional objects with modern technology,” he said.
The main gallery is a study in black-and-white contrasts with a symmetrical placement of five PixCell objects on stands in the center of the gallery. They have been placed in between the large Moment photographs, installed around the gallery walls. Objects here include a digital camera (used to take the Moment photographs), a rotary telephone, countertop television and two pieces of taxidermy — a baby goat and a crow — all of which are adorned with a layer of Lucite spheres. Nawa said that he would obtain the objects online and that the goat had a very specific inspiration. He recalled that he was fascinated when reading about Dolly, the cloned sheep. “Humanity tried to treat an animal as information,” he said. “What they learned from DNA made everyone realize we are all based on that information.”
The camera, television and telephone were chosen as the artist reflected on “Palo Alto history and technology. I wanted to choose ‘old technology’ for the PixCell works.” Younger viewers may be amused, or confused, by the dial on the telephone and the antenna on the tiny TV. The other two objects, the goat and the crow, carry more serious connotations with special meanings in Japanese culture. “Both the crow and the goat are historically symbolic, but I don’t want to talk about that because I want people to bring their own knowledge and experience to the pieces,” Nawa said.
It is in these objects that the artist achieves his goal of applying the digital photography process of pixelation onto three-dimensional objects, causing us to view them in a totally new way.
Rife with both literal and metaphysical associations, Nawa’s work embraces more than just the formal qualities of the media he uses. As the gallery’s press release states, “Nawa focuses on the ways humans perceive and understand objects and images in the fast-paced age of social media, where information and disinformation spread rapidly.” Given that Silicon Valley is the birthplace of technology and home to information innovators like Facebook, Google and Apple, this exhibition is perfectly placed.
“PixCell_Moment” is on view through July 1 at Pace Gallery, 229 Hamilton Ave., Palo Alto
For more information, visit pacegallery.com.