6 October 2017

HOW TO INTERPRET (ABSTRACT) ART: KAZUO NAKAMURA'S NUMBER STRUCTURE II

OBJECT OF THE WEEK

BY: KESANG NANGLU

I'll admit three things to you right now:
1. I'm an artist
2. Sometimes I feel like I know nothing about art
3. This is my fifth go at choosing a topic for this post

...And despite those three confessions, here I am writing, about art, and resolving to finally hit "publish"! So for my first contribution as columnist of Object of the Week, I'd like to think about authority and accessibility -- specifically, in art interpretation.

Kazuo Nakamura, Number Structure II, 1984. Photo Courtesy of Kesang Nanglu
Detail. Photo Courtesy of Kesang Nanglu
This is Number Structure II by the artist Kazuo Nakamura. It's hanging on the 2nd floor of the AGO, in an area filled with other works by Modern and Contemporary Canadian artists. Final confession: I'm a volunteer gallery guide at the AGO, and this painting happens to be the last stop of my tour. The reason I've left it as my last stop is that it can inspire the kind of discussion that leaves visitors with the inkling that they may have lot more insight to offer than they think they do.

A little background first: Nakamura was a Japanese-Canadian artist, born in Vancouver. He's probably best known as a founding member of the Canadian Modern art collective, The Painters Eleven. While these artists didn't share a lot in common in terms of the work they produced, they were deeply connected by their commitment to Abstraction in a time when landscapes were still the predominant choice of painted subject matter in Canada, and were considered to be the utmost expression of Canadian identity in art.

(Some of) The Painters Eleven. Source.
Although their work may not have been to the taste of the Canadian public, Clement Greenberg himself was a fan. After all, Abstraction was well established in other Western art scenes, and of course our American neighbours were arguably leading the movement during the mid 20th century.

History aside, I love talking about this piece with visitors at the gallery because it's both intimidating, and in a sense, incredibly liberating in its accessibility. If the painting isn't telling you outright what it is or what it's about, is there any wrong answer?

On my own first viewing, I stood and stared for several minutes before I began to wonder: for a painting full of geometric shapes and numbers, why did Nakamura choose oil on canvas? Why communicate seemingly cold and dispassionate ideas of science and mathematics through a medium so inextricably associated with tradition, genre, and subjectivity? There's a very beautiful expression in that, and in his tiny blue squares of varied opacity, and his thin, slanted numbers -- all hand painted. I can imagine him hunched over the canvas for hours. It communicates a real devotion to the process that is in itself incredibly moving.

And ultimately it adds up to... nothing? A visitor commented on the frustration he felt while viewing the piece -- he had a background in mathematics and complained that the equations Nakamura employed were all wrong. He had "messed with" these "perfect models", and it was almost offensive!

Again, I can't help but find a romantic reading here. To use logic-based systems to create nothing but a confused, error-filled worksheet of unresolved math problems is like a proclamation that, try as we may, the answers we seek are just out of reach -- not unlike a concrete reading of an abstract artwork.

Nakamura himself said that through his art practice, he was "seeking a fundamental universal pattern in all art and nature" -- an incredibly romantic mission statement if you ask me. It reminds me of a time when artists and scientists were also part philosopher. As Jacques Cousteau once said, "What is a scientist after all? It is a curious [person] looking through a keyhole, the keyhole of nature, trying to know what's going on."

Our interpretation of Number Stucture II, and of Nakamura's objective as an artist is complicated further, if we consider how Nakamura himself was a survivor of Japanese internment in Canada during the second World War. With this knowledge, can we possibly view his painting as purely objective?

Source.

And that's really just the tip of the iceberg (hah)! I could go on forever about this piece, or any other, but the point of this post is that anyone could, if they felt they had permission.

It's been especially exciting for me to learn about Nakamura, an Asian man who has contributed so much to Canadian art and abstraction, with work of his own on view at a major institution alongside the household names (cough, above) we were nearly force-fed in primary school.

What do you think?

Do you like Nakamura's Number Structure II?
Does Abstract art scare you? (It stills scares me, often)
What are the best methods of interpretation in a museum/gallery setting?


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