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ART / CATHY CURTIS : A Disembodied Look at the Body : Thomas Nakada's Abstractions at Newport Harbor Museum Fail to Connect

April 13, 1993|CATHY CURTIS

You wouldn't know it from the exhibition schedule at Newport Harbor Art Museum, but the body is probably the major subject of art today--not the body beautiful, but the body under siege, exposed, probed and mocked.

Attractive unclothed bodies have been popular subjects in Western art for a very long time, of course, from the marble perfection of ancient Greek statues of young men to the sensual photographic studies Edward Weston made of a woman lying on a sand dune. A parallel tradition of depicting emaciated, pain-ridden bodies is at least as old as medieval images of a suffering Jesus nailed to the cross.

In our time, a different kind of body art has emerged as the complex result of such factors as the devastation of AIDS, the increased militancy of gay-rights organizations, a new frankness in "adult" humor, the blurring of definitions between "lowbrow" and "highbrow" art, exploded myths of traditional family life, the overwhelmingly ironic sensibility of today's youth culture and a powerful new strain of feminist critique.

Mingling taboo and metaphor in powerful ways, the art is preoccupied with the body's dirty secrets: excretion, mutilation, dysfunction, compulsion. Sometimes there aren't even any images of bodies, just traces of a human presence (like blood stains). Bodies may be represented by other objects (sex toys, oddly constructed furniture), or presented only in fragmentary or token form.

San Francisco artist Thomas Nakada's 23 small abstract paintings at Newport Harbor (through May 2) are based on images of cells, chromosomes and other biological components. But although the work may appear to flirt with big timely "body" themes (how living things are "programmed"--for sexual preference, for disease resistance), it is really little more than a series of politely uninvolving abstractions.

Several years ago, Nakada switched from welding sculpture to making paintings. One large-scale series of abstractions was based on skin diseases illustrated in a medical book. The blobby patterns in the current paintings derive from scientific illustrations and sub-microscopic laser photographs.

Coated with light or heavy applications of wax, and framed with bands of steel, the paintings--which vary in size but are generally about a foot square--have a carefully tended quality, like precious specimens preserved between glass slides.

In "Skin Deep," the luminous yellow surface is mottled with a colony of black dots; in "Culturation," strings of small and larger white blobs with pin-dot black centers stretch across a black field in irregular formation. "Zygote," a painterly image of a fertilized egg cell surrounded by other cells, looks rather like an enlargement of the mottled brown designs found on the endpapers of old books.

Bruce Guenther, the museum's chief curator, writes in his brochure essay that "The interplay of attraction and repulsion in Nakada's palette finds a parallel in his surface treatment" of the wax layer, which evokes for him "the aqueous nature of plasma, seminal fluid and nucleic acid."

Guenther adds that although Nakada "was not seeking to make a comment on the AIDS pandemic or incorporate a political dimension into his works, the confluence of his imagery and materials, and the epoch itself, renders them powerful signifiers of our age."

The curator appears to be saying that, by virtue of the fact that Nakada's work deals with biological imagery, it inevitably conveys the spirit of an age darkened by the threat and presence of a new deadly disease.

That sounds at best like wishful thinking. What really happens (regardless of Nakada's own intentions in making the work) is that his paintings inevitably are compared to other body-related art far richer in ironic commentary--as well as pain and rage and even humor.

For example? Sculpture and installations by Kiki Smith, Mike Kelley, Chris Eisner, Charles Ray, Zizi Raymond, Rona Pondick, Lauren Lesko, Jacci Den Hartog, Dorit Cypis, Nancy Barton, Nayland Blake, Matthew Barney, Jeffrey Vallance. Drawings by Megan Williams, Jim Shaw, Raymond Pettibon. Paintings by Sue Williams, Judie Bamber . . . The list goes on and on.

To my eyes, Nakada uses scientific imagery in an essentially straightforward way--as a source of moodily attractive patterning--and relies too heavily on wax (a favorite medium of many younger artists these days) to add an aura of dreamy introspection. I don't see the "repulsion" in this work at all; Nakada might just as well have painted it 20 years ago as a wistful paean to brave new worlds of biology.

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