Naotaka Hiro’s Pulp Fictions

LONDON — Green Door at Herald St, the first European exhibition of Naotaka Hiro, continues the artist’s exploration of what he calls “the unknowability of the body,” since we can only perceive our bodies through mediums such as mirrors, cameras, or X-rays. The exhibition is composed of eight works made between 2018 and 2021: two large canvases, four plywood paintings, a bronze sculpture, and a film recording of his unusual and visceral artmaking technique. 

Several of the paintings feature something strange: two perfectly round openings in the surface of the work.  The Japanese-born, Pasadena-based artist uses these holes to practice a highly intimate kind of artmaking. Collapsing the traditional, arms-length distance between the artwork and the artist, he slips his limbs into these openings to hold the surface close. He often wraps himself in unstretched canvas, creating a cocoon he paints from within (“Untitled (Green Door)”2021, “Untitled (Vector)” 2021). At other times, he lies on his back on the studio floor, his legs poking through a plywood panel so it hovers above him (“Untitled (Frequency)” 2021). He presses parts of his body against the surface as he works, and the strokes and shapes of his paintings and drawings are often the length of a hand, a forearm, or a torso. Each piece is a record of the artist’s position, movements, and sensations during artmaking, from aches and temperature shifts to the rise and fall of his chest with each passing breath. 

Naotaka Hiro, “Untitled (Green Door)” (2021), oil pastel and fabric dye on canvas 101 x 83 inches

Hiro said in a 2020 interview that a canvas functions for him like a 3-D scanner, while a wood panel is closer to a flatbed one. The “scans” he makes — his paintings and drawings — have a composition reminiscent of the body’s organization. Melty-looking dashes fall to each side of a spine-like center, suggestive of flesh or organs. Bonier forms layer these soft ones. They extend outwards and downwards, like arms or ribs. Yet these are no anatomical drawings. Everything is undone, mixed up, and abstracted; nothing gels into a coherent, functional body, one that can digest or have sex.

Naotaka Hiro, “Untitled (Frequency)” (2021), acrylic, graphite, grease pencil, and crayon on wood 58 x 42 x 2 inches

This undoing of the body might suggest violence, but Hiro’s paintings have an unmistakable euphoric streak. Using crayon, acrylic, grease pencil, and fabric dye, he mixes blood red and piss yellow with more exotic colors, like teal, malachite, and tangerine. The runny, fleshy forms on each side of the spinal axis often feature motifs that are decidedly non-human, suggesting fish scales, feathers, and tortoiseshell. By melding human anatomy with mineral, vegetal, and animal elements, the artist illustrates the capaciousness of the body as a sensory receptacle, its ability to simultaneously hold within itself feather-soft elements, as well as other, heavier ones, with the protective functions of a carapace or a shell. Made with and around the body, Hiro’s works depict a body perceived from within, felt rather than seen.

Green Door continues at Herald St gallery (2 Herald Street, London, UK) through November 13.

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