LOS ANGELES — The characters of Daisuke Fukunaga’s Beautiful Work, on view at Nonaka-Hill, occupy a unique and strange liminal space between work and sleep. Throughout the exhibition, Fukunaga keeps a seemingly simple concept — pleasant paintings of workers — remarkably unexpected. In these paintings, the worker appears solitary, and, with a few exceptions, entirely alone on the picture plane. While this setup could easily be depicted as lonely or sad, somehow Fukunaga manages more emotional complexity than that, keeping them in a space more akin to the dreamy.

Daisuke Fukunaga, “Beautiful work” (2022), oil on canvas, 57 1/4 x 44 1/8 inches

In the exhibition’s titular piece, “Beautiful work”(2022), a laborer pulls down a bright yellow glove on her hand, one of the few laborers in Fukunaga’s paintings who is actively working. Against the backdrop of a bathroom, she stares out at the viewer as she prepares to clean. She is painted hazily, with light, visible brushstrokes in a way reminiscent of impressionism or pointillism, typical of Fukunaga’s work. The only figure in the exhibition to break the fourth wall of the painting and make eye contact with the viewer, she is paradoxically the most emotionally remote, donning the smile-equivalent of small talk. It is as if she pauses politely to acknowledge the viewer’s presence before carrying on with her particularly rote form of work and, one can only imagine, her daydreaming.

Installation view of Daisuke Fukunaga: Beautiful Work at Nonaka-Hill, 2022

The most intimate paintings are those of men sleeping, aptly titled “Sleeping man 4,” “Sleeping man 3,” and “Sleeping man 2” (all 2022). “Sleeping man 4” is particularly tender, depicting a male figure slumbering on a train. Painted in a wave of feathery brush strokes, the purples of the seat he rests upon and the silvery glow of his skin give him an almost-ghostly look, while a bright orange scarf wrapped around his neck keeps the painting vibrant. Presumably on his way to or from work, the clacking of the train car he rides upon has lulled him to sleep. This phenomenon of workers sleeping while in transit to their jobs is typical in Fukunaga’s native Japan, where the artist lives and works.

Installation view of Daisuke Fukunaga: Beautiful Work at Nonaka-Hill, 2022

Japan has a notoriously intense work culture, though Fukunaga’s paintings come across as more sweetly admiring of the individual people depicted than critical of the culture at large. While the press release acknowledges the “long work hours” and “long commutes” that contribute to this phenomenon, it follows with an oddly upbeat sentence, saying “… Fortunately, the sleepy can enjoy a sense of security, drifting off in one of the world’s safest countries.” 

Daisuke Fukunaga, “Vague time” (2022), oil on canvas, 76 3/8 x 102 inches

A couple of thoughts come to mind in response to this sentence: (a) That’s, ahem, a very positive take on the situation and (b) not so much the case in LA. Here, if you fall asleep while riding the bus, there is a fair chance you’ll wake up without your wallet or phone. There are a plethora of Angeleno workers, however, who can relate to long work hours followed by long commutes, whether they be by bus or private vehicle. In exhibiting these paintings of Japanese laborers in the United States, a parallel is drawn between the intensity of Japanese work culture and our own obsession with so-called productivity.

Daisuke Fukunaga, “Dance (carriers)” (2022), oil on canvas, two panels of 89 1/2 x 127 1/2 inches each

In another piece titled “Dance (carriers)” (2022), workers sway across the painting with empty carrier carts, presumably working at an Amazon-type factory that deals in the shipping and holding of products. Compositionally reminiscent of Matisse’s seminal “Dance” (1910), once again Fukunaga chooses to present what could easily be imagined as dystopian in a harmonious way. Here, and across the entire exhibition, the workers may be sleepy, but they are consistently presented as happy, or at least peaceful.

Beautiful Work continues at Nonaka-Hill gallery (720 North Highland Avenue, Hollywood, Los Angeles) through May 14. The exhibition is organized by the gallery.

Jennifer Remenchik is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles.