Naotaka Hiro and Embodying the Act of Painting

In his groundbreaking essay ‘Human Universe’, poet Charles Olson wrote, ‘Art seeks not to describe but to stage’. For more than 60 years, Maria Lassnig made what she called “Kørperbilder” or “body awareness paintings”. Olson’s and Lassnig’s interest in the body’s awareness of moving through space – or kinesthesia – shares something with Jackson Pollock, who said, “When I’m in my painting, I’m not aware of what I do. It’s only after a sort of “knowledge” period that I see what I’ve done. Here are some of the associations I made during my visit Naotaka Hiro: Sandman, the artist’s first exhibition at the Bortolami gallery (June 24-August 26, 2022). The exhibition includes 15 works: nine paintings done in different mediums on wood panels and four on unstretched canvas fixed to the wall, as well as a figurative sculpture by the artist and a nearly 10-minute video, “Subterranean – Session 2” (2022), it is worth watching.

I learned at the gallery that Hiro was born in Osaka, Japan in 1972 and worked for many years as a studio assistant for Paul McCarthy. These facts give some insight into what Hiro does, since the Gutai Bijutsu Kyokai (Gutai Art Association) was established in Osaka in 1954. Kazuo Shirago, an original member, is known for painting with his feet; in McCarthy’s early work he used his body as a paintbrush.

Naotaka Hiro, “Untitled (Cavern)” (2022), acrylic and pencil on paper. Artwork: 42 x 32 inches; framed: 45 x 34 3/4 x 2 inches

The difference is that Hiro’s demanding performative process evokes restraint and limitation, which inflects the work and the experience of looking at it. This is particularly evident in his sculptures, of which he is always the subject. In “Sandman” (2022), he pours silicone over his body, covering himself with it. It should freeze in its position until the silicone dries. After pulling himself out, he sinks the bronze silicone skin. The result is disturbing, in part because the right arm with which Hiro used to pour the liquid silicone is missing, while the survey of the topography of the body denies any idealization.

To paint on wooden panels, he lies down, like a mechanic on a vine rolling under a car. A handful of similar actions and images can be found in all of these paintings: a large group of vertical gouges made along the vertical axis of the painting; leaf-like and plant-like forms, often dark red; flat, black, scale-like forms. We can also see vigorous repetition, wandering lines, linear clusters, green abstract shapes, and a peachy pink. Gouges can evoke all kinds of feelings, from frustration to anger to a sense of absurdity. Changes in medium, brands and colors all exert an emotional pull. When Hiro is under the painting, only about two feet separate him from the surface of the work, which means that his vision of the painting is partial. He can easily see and work on what is directly in front of him, but he cannot walk away and survey all of the work.

Naotaka Hiro, “Sandman” (2022), bronze, stainless steel rod, steel, black patina, 72 x 34 1/2 x 32 inches, edition of 3 + 1 EA

Even knowing how the paintings are made and that the artist is concerned with representing the inner organs and the limits of his gestures, it is impossible to see a one-to-one relationship between the painting and Hiro’s body. This gap between the what and the who, between the material body and the psychological body, which is too often taken for granted, is one of the underlying themes of the show. As with “Sandman”, the exhibition as a whole projects a sense of incompleteness, vulnerability and mortality.

In the four large unstretched canvases, two of which have two large, precision-cut circular openings and all of which have rope and grommets threading the surface, Hiro literally steps inside the painting by standing with one leg through each hole and uses the ropes to pull the web and wrap it around him. By spraying fabric dye into the opening, he uses his body to paint. As he paints and draws, he cannot see what he is doing. This action can be repeated over time. In addition to fabric dyeing, he uses oil pastel and other mediums to make accretions of shapes and marks.

In “Untitled (Crawl #8)” (2022), Hiro used the rope in the center of the web to measure and control his distance from that point while crawling clockwise around the web . Binding his wrist, waist, and neck with the rope, he transforms into a compass-like tool, tracing a measured circular line around the center. “Untitled (Crawl #8)” consists of a few hundred circular lines. Submitting to these self-designed controls and extreme limitations, Hiro asks, what is freedom in art? The line he takes for a walk turns and turns and turns. Endurance, the residue of an action and tattered beauty have been united into one.

Naotaka Hiro, “Untitled (Crawl #8)” (2022), oil pastel, fabric dye on canvas, 102 x 83 1/2 inches

Naotaka Hiro: Sandman continues at Bortolami (39 Walker Street, Tribeca, Manhattan) through August 26. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

About Catharine C. Bean

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