Locked in a battle with postmodernism, Nakashima holds fiercely to his modernist aesthetic. Like the tree piles and weathered buildings he pictures, his detailed representational works stand in stark contrast to the current trend that rejects artistic technique.
“Since postmodernism, critics don’t discuss the quality of a work. They tend to discuss the content or the intention of the work,” Nakashima explained. “I’m a modernist. I tend to be more interested in the quality of a painting.”
Modernism concerns itself with the metaphysical, the fundamental truth that lies beyond the reality of human existence. Postmodernism questions whether these ideals exist at all.
“To some extent, postmodernists ask, ‘How can we even talk about art?’” he said, amusement playing in his eyes, illuminated by his round blue frames.
Nakashima doesn’t waste time wondering. He dives deeply into spirituality and politics and has a profound awareness of symbolism. When he uses a fish in his work, heknows it possesses powerful meanings in both Christian and Chinese traditions.
His passion for this kind of communication flows from a deep well of conviction. He tells his students that art is more than images on paper or paint on canvas.
“I think that an artist should have fundamental beliefs in an ethical system, an aesthetic system and a system of living,” he said.
So when he focuses on a single image, the pile of trees, for example, that is a running image in his current work, there is a rhyme and reason as to why he chose it.
When Nakashima and his family moved from urban Washington, D.C., to rural Berryville, Va., he found himself surrounded by apple orchards and apiaries that scented the air with fruit and honey. But he was a forerunner for the urban influx that followed.
“This little community became overnight a bedroom community for the greater D.C. area,” he said.
New home construction meant old home destruction. The orchards that once snowed spring blossoms were uprooted and piled up, awaiting the chipper.
“It really struck me because the tree piles went back to the horizon,” he said. They reminded him of the rows of tanks he’d seen while in the armed forces. In 1999, he began putting his brush to work in exploring the spectacle and its significance. “There was a certain threatening quality that interested me.”
The tree piles became an obsession that represented encroaching urbanity, deforestation, overpopulation and aging. The image and the issues still haunt him.
Nakashima is meticulous — he uses the less-flattering word “fussy” — and any old tree pile won’t do.
“I have pictures of more than 200 tree piles,” he said. “But I’ve only used three in my work.”
That doesn’t stop people from approaching him with news of yet another tree pile that they think he will love. Only one has caught his eye, located off a highway expansion south of Atlanta. Just two buildings, one in Rayle and one somewhere in between Augusta and Savannah, have garnered his attention.
It’s true that he has spent a lot of time on an unusual subject, searching for perfection in the random effects of gravity on falling timber.
“Until I find something that really strikes me with a lot of power, I don’t move on,” he said.
That also might be why he applied for an extension to his contract as current William S. Morris Eminent Scholar in Art at Augusta State University. Usually, the artist in the post serves for five years, but Nakashima was recently granted a three-year extension. Maybe nothing has really moved him yet.
In the meantime, he experiments with technique and style, always pushing himself past his comfort zone. He practices drawing and painting with his brush attached tothe end of a bamboo pole, something akin to a Buddhist exercise that he describes as being more like dancing than painting.
Currently, he is using a collage technique to create what he still considers paintings. Step up close to his work and you’ll see that most of the images are composed of long strips of newspaper. Step back, and it has the same effect as painting, just done in black, white and gray.
“That’s kind of my palette,” he said, and it’s a powerful one.
Nakashima’s art morphs an ordinary occurrence — felled trees in an orchard, abandoned buildings on a farm — into a mythic story land. It’s both beautiful and brutal, a combination of the stark appeal of decay and the message that decay sends to his viewers. It’s more than a list of statistics about the rate at which the rainforest is being destroyed. His large-scale works breathe. They whisper. They reach out with twisted hands and draw you into an issue. He admits that they’re dark, a far cry from the fruit-and-flowers school of still-life painting.
“People ask me all the time, ‘Why is your work so gloomy?’” He laughed. “I want to deal with serious kinds of dramatic issues. Painting pretty pictures is not what I am interested in.”
“Tom Nakashima: A Retrospective”
Mary Pauline Gallery
Through April 21
Hours: 10 am to 5 pm, Tuesday through Friday; 11 am to 3 pm, Saturday
“Tom Nakashima: Two Decades”
Morris Museum of Art
Through April 29
Hours: 10 am to 5 pm, Tuesday through Saturday; noon to 5 pm, Sunday