The Beautiful Illusions of Kohei Nawa
Lost in a little-known area of northern Tokyo, between temples and small shops from a bygone age, SCAI the Bathhouse exhibits the provocative work of young Kohei Nawa
“I come from a small town where roads are small and where the atmosphere of old Japanese castle towns can still be felt,” recalls Kohei Nawa, an Osaka-born artist whose work is currently on display at Tokyo’s SCAI the Bathhouse gallery. Nawa hails from a family of artistically inspired teachers—his father taught manual arts, his mother, literature, and his grandmother, flower arrangement and calligraphy. It was only natural then that Nawa became fond of traditional Japanese arts, crafts and tales. “The legends coming from my mother’s village, ‘River of the Cow,’ also had a profound impact on me, notably my interest in animals and divine beasts,” he says. As early as three he began crafting games and tableware cut out of bamboo.
“I also used to often go to the local museum. I tried to copy works from masters such as Dali, Yves Tanguy, Magritte or Kandisky. This way, I started experimenting with ink and paper,” he recalls. Although his art may seem very conceptual, it actually flows naturally from experimentation. “Some artists think before they build art, some think after. I am more the second type! Simply put, maybe I think with my hand. I sometimes just start with an image or a specific sensation I want to show,” he explains. Furthermore, Nawa always strives to retain an immediate approach. “I don’t work according to a doctrine but aim at making things which will speak directly to people’s sensibilities,” he states.
And it is precisely this artistic immediacy that has drawn followers to his work. A young college graduate, Fumiko Nagayoshi, entered Nawa’s 2003 Nomart Edition/Project Space exhibition in Osaka and instantly became enamored with his work. “I studied politics, not art,” recalls Nagayoshi. “But Nawa’s art speaks to everybody. At first, without thinking, one can fall in love with it.”
Nagayoshi became enchanted with a stuffed red carp on display at the exhibition. The fish, part of the PixCell series, was covered with beads that deflected light and randomly deformed the carp. “The carp is there but because it is deformed by the beads, one wonders what is really there,” Nagayoshi noted. “Illusion and reality become the same thing.”
Excited by Nawa’s potential, she encouraged him to enter a competition organized by the cutting edge Uplink Gallery in Tokyo. After winning the competition, Nawa drew the attention of Masami Shiraishi, founder of the hip and ambitious SCAI the Bathhouse gallery. With an incredible flair for the up-and-coming, SCAI has exhibited artists such as Anish Kapoor, Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara, all of whom have seen their market value climb since exhibiting their work at SCAI. Murakami and Nara’s mid-nineties shows there were stepping stones to their art world stardom.
Despite his newfound success, Nawa has a down-to-earth sensibility about him, and he maintains a respect for the work of his contemporaries. Regarding his favorite artist choice, he simply states, “There is nobody I could describe like that, but I was recently impressed by the exhibition of Tim Hawkinson at the LACMA in LA.”
Image: Carp, Kohei Nawa. 2002. PixCell series. Mixed media. Courtesy Shiraishi Contemporary Art Inc.