'Speech Balloon, Spirits' (detail), Kengo Nakamura (1995) Pigment on paper. 72 x 60.6cm. Photo: Akihiko Matsumoto

‘Speech Balloon, Spirits’ (detail), Kengo Nakamura (1995) Pigment on paper. 72 x 60.6cm. Photo: Akihiko Matsumoto

Kengo Nakamura’s work is best characterised as appropriation art. He usually applies pigment to Japanese paper that is then mounted on wooden board. Sometimes his marks hang over fields of blazing colour, at other times they levitate above pale expanses, but he often repeats his chosen motif enough times to produce evenly dispersed abstract patterns. Typically, Nakamura plucks these motifs from the graphic world as readymades to be read anew.
The work that he first became known for was “Composition Tokyo” (1994-98). Using the floor plans that normally describe the arrangement of rooms in rental apartments, the sort you can find posted in the window of property agencies, Nakamura filled in certain sections with solid blocks of colour. The results are reminiscent of the stark geometric paintings of Dutch Modernist Piet Mondrian. In referencing Mondrian’s iconic works, Nakamura borrows from two worlds; from the commonly loaned property of apartment rentals and the exclusive ownership of artistic ideas.
'Composition Tokyo', Kengo Nakamura (1994-8). Pigment on paper. Various sizes. 2003 installation view at CAI International, Hamburg.

‘Composition Tokyo’, Kengo Nakamura (1994-8). Pigment on paper. Various sizes. 2003 installation view at CAI International, Hamburg.

The artist has borrowed from other sources too. During the early 2010s, he appropriated lines and squiggles from manga’s vast library. In the series “Without Me” (2010-13), he covered the paper’s surface with a whole cast of manga personalities, but without explicitly describing a whole character. Instead, a composite of wriggly-lined profiles and joined-together fragments describe absent protagonists. Your eye follows from one figure to the next, chasing the line across the page.
'Without Me', Kengo Nakamura (2010-13). Pigment on paper. 130.3 x 89.4 cm.

‘Without Me’, Kengo Nakamura (2010-13). Pigment on paper. 130.3 x 89.4 cm.

More recently, Nakamura has turned his attention to characters of the written sort; emoticons, or more accurately, kaomoji. As a way of extending how letters and punctuation marks are used to make simple facial expressions, kaomoji are widely used in texts and messages in Japan. Their appeal is that by using the right combinations of symbols you can represent how you feel or want to be understood pictorially. As a visual shorthand, kaomoji are readily exchanged to stand for joy, love, embarrassment, sympathy, dissatisfaction, anger, sorrow, fear, indifference, confusion, doubt, surprise and more.
Arguably, using emoji could be seen as a self-referential turn in Nakamura’s work. After all, he is appropriating a form of previously appropriated pictorial representation. But in doing so, Nakamura opens his work to include the social context that these signs are usually exchanged within. In each body of work mentioned above, Nakamura takes familiar graphics and represents them as a unique set of art objects. In the “Emoticon” series he asks that we find our faces too.
'Emoticon - Ourselves in Today's World', Kengo Nakamura (2013). 100 × 80.3cm.

‘Emoticon – Ourselves in Today’s World’, Kengo Nakamura (2013). Pigment on paper. 100 × 80.3cm.

'Emoticon - Ourselves in Today's World', Kengo Nakamura (2013). Pigment on paper. 100 × 80.3cm.

‘Emoticon – Ourselves in Today’s World’, Kengo Nakamura (2013). Pigment on paper. 100 × 80.3cm.

Kengo Nakamura was born in Osaka (1969). The artist lives and works in Tokyo.
http://www.nakamurakengo.com
©Nick West 2015