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“Manika Nagare: In Between”

Manika Nagare is a mid-career Japanese painter whose highly colorful work might best be described as a hybrid between color field and abstract expressionist painting. The phrase “In Between” corresponds to a state of Independence flanked on either side by differing concepts: color and form, feeling and thought, Asian and Western influences. Additionally, Nagare had the powerful experience of taking care of her father as he was dying, that is, existing in between the very narrow middle ground between life and death. In Japan, death is often characterized as crossing a river poised between existence and non-existence. Seeing her father pass away has influenced Nagare’s beautiful paintings just as deeply as the physical attributes of her stylistic decisions. Other questions, such as the influence of Western painting styles--Nagare lived in America for some time--are important as technical inquiries, but the works move us primarily because of intense feeling, introduced by vivid colors, that convey the artist’s emotional and spiritual life.


“Through a Distant Eye” (2020), like its close cousin “Through a Far-Away Eye” (2020), are abstract-driven landscapes that might well refer to the perception of the river spoken of. Consisting of three horizontal sections, the first painting communicates Nagare’s emotional life through striking color combinations: dark blue for the bottom third; the middle given to a complex tannish-brown on the right and pink and yellow splotches on the left; and on the top, an acid green. The second painting, similarly structured to what we just described, has a bottom two-thirds that consists mostly of a transparent brown, with a rectangle of deep, dark blue on the left, while the upper part consists of a very light, cream-colored stripe on the left, with a brown section on the right. A shape looking very much like a flower, in light-colored paint, hangs in the central left space of the composition. Both paintings are exquisitely realized abstractions; both paintings might be characterized as visionary treatments of the landscape appearing before a person just before death. Their mixture of figuration and abstraction--the titles do indicate that there is something there to be seen-- complicate and expand Nagare’s complex tonal reading of a space that is real and imagined at the same time.


We can debate whether regional affiliations make any sense anymore, mostly because the styles no longer reflect a particular culture. At the same time, for obscure reasons, the abstract expressionist style dies hard--not only here, in New York, but all over. The painting “In a Deep Sleep” (2020), an expressionist work, presents a large, V-shaped structure that dominates the painting plane. Its major colors are blue, a mauve red, brown, and two variations of green. Deep sea blues take up a good part of the left side of the painting and the bottom right corner the criticism can be made that such works repeat formal elements and hues we have come across before, but in Nagare's case, the visionary intensity of the colors transforms the works into statements of heartfelt interest. The emotions these paintings evoke possess depth and spirituality in ways that speak to everyone, brought about by the artist’s inspired employment of color. Another painting, “In Between No. 1” (2019), like most of the paintings in the show, reflects the influence of the New York School, color field painting especially. The images consist of a massive rock-like form colored red, brown, a dark, pinkish mauve, and at the top of the weighted image, elements of dark blue. A thin, bright green vertical sliver exists on the far left, while areas of white are found on the top and in the middle of the painting. “In Between No. 1" offers Nagare’s audience the pleasures of subtle hue linked to a monumental form, in a way that both adheres to earlier abstract traditions and makes them new.


Nagare’s concern with mortality is evident from the start in the painting named “To the Other Side” (2020), which consists of three broad horizontal swathes of color: a deep blue on the bottom, with a maroon upper left-hand component; a bright red river in the middle; and, on the top, a cream-colored expanse. Between the middle and upper layers there’s a thin stripe, mostly of light mauve and blue--a bit of distant shore on the other side of life’s loss. One feels compelled to assume the painting refers to her father’s passing. The bold red, dominating the painting, acts both as a river to be traversed and as an abstract visual component at the same time. Perhaps that is the best we can do with showing a state no one has ever returned from to describe: a state of ineluctable transport and an object of great anxiety and awe. Nagare is an artist of considerable imagination, choosing both to paint in a variously hued, sometimes nearly decorative manner (in the Japanese tradition?), as well as echoing the ongoing presence, conscious or not, of death in our thought. This double accomplishment moves her away from an imitation of a historical style into an original exploration of experiences we can explore only as suggestions, as they are beyond our experience.


Jonathan Goodman, February 28, 2021

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