Naotaka Hiro, "Untitled (Green Mansion)" (2022), oil pastel, fabric dye on canvas, 102 x 83 1/2 inches (all images courtesy the artist and Bortolami Gallery, photography by Guang Xu)

In his groundbreaking essay “Human Universe,” the poet Charles Olson wrote: “Art does not seek to describe but to enact.” For more than 60 years, Maria Lassnig made what she called “Kørperbilder” or “body awareness paintings.” Olson’s and Lassnig’s interest in the body’s consciousness of moving through space — or kinesthesia — shares something with Jackson Pollock, who famously stated: “When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing. It is only after a sort of ‘get acquainted’ period that I see what I have been about.” These are a few of the associations that I made while I was visiting Naotaka Hiro: Sand-man, the artist’s debut exhibition at Bortolami gallery (June 24–August 26, 2022). The exhibition includes 15 works: nine paintings done in different mediums on wood panels and four on unstretched canvas that is mounted on the wall, as well as a figurative sculpture of the artist and an almost 10-minute video, “Subterranean – Session 2” (2022), that is well worth watching. 

I learned from the gallery that Hiro was born in Osaka, Japan, in 1972, and that he worked for many years as a studio assistant to Paul McCarthy. These facts provide insight into what Hiro is up to, as the Gutai Bijutsu Kyokai (Gutai Art Association) was formed in Osaka in 1954. Kazuo Shirago, an original member, is known for painting with his feet; in McCarthy’s early work, he used his body as a paintbrush. 

Naotaka Hiro, “Untitled (Cavern)” (2022), acrylic and pencil on paper. Artwork: 42 x 32 inches; framed: 45 x 34 3/4 x 2 inches

The difference is that Hiro’s exacting performative process evokes restraint and limitation, which inflects the work and the experience of viewing it. This is most evident in his sculptures, for which he is always the subject. In “Sandman” (2022), he pours silicone over his body, covering himself with it. He has to freeze in his position until the silicone dries. After extricating himself, he casts the silicone skin in bronze. The result is unsettling, partly because the right arm that Hiro used to pour the liquid silicone is missing, while the record of the body’s topography denies idealization.

In order to make the paintings on wood panels, he lies underneath them, like a mechanic on a creeper rolling under a car. A handful of similar actions and images can be found in all of these paintings: a large cluster of vertical gouges made along the vertical axis of the painting; leaf- and plant-like shapes, often dark red; flat, black, scale-like shapes. We can also see vigorous repetition, wandering lines, linear clusters, green abstract shapes, and a peachy-pink one. The gouges can evoke all kinds of feelings, from frustration to anger to a sense of absurdity. The shifts in medium, marks, and color all exert an emotional pull. When Hiro is underneath the painting, only about two feet separate him from the work’s surface, which means his view of the painting is partial. He can easily see and work on what is directly in front of him, but he cannot step away and survey the entire work. 

Naotaka Hiro, “Sandman” (2022), bronze, stainless-steel rod, steel, black patina, 72 x 34 1/2 x 32 inches, edition of 3 + 1 AP

Even knowing how the paintings are made and that the artist is preoccupied with depicting  interior organs and the limits of his gestures, it is impossible to see a one-to-one relationship between the painting and Hiro’s body. This gap between the what and the who, between the material body and the psychological one, which we all too often take for granted, is one of the show’s underlying themes. As with “Sandman,” the exhibition as a whole projects a sense of incompleteness, vulnerability, and mortality. 

In the four large, unstretched canvases, two of which have two large, precisely cut circular openings and all of which have rope and grommets threading the surface, Hiro literally gets inside the painting by standing with one leg through each hole and uses the ropes to pull up the canvas and wrap it around himself. By spraying fabric dye into the opening, he uses his body to paint. As he paints and draws he cannot see what he is doing. This action might be repeated over time. In addition to the fabric dye, he uses oil pastel and other mediums to makes accretions of shapes and marks. 

In “Untitled (Crawl #8)” (2022), Hiro used the rope in the center of the canvas to measure and control his distance from that point while crawling clockwise around the canvas. Tying his wrist, waist, and neck with the rope, he turns himself into a compass-like tool, making a measured circular line around the center. “Untitled (Crawl #8)” consists of a few hundred circular lines. Submitting to these self-devised controls and extreme limitations, Hiro asks, what is freedom in art? The line that he takes for a walk goes around and around and around. Endurance, residue of an action, and ragged beauty have been rolled into one. 

Naotaka Hiro, “Untitled (Crawl #8)” (2022), oil pastel, fabric dye on canvas, 102 x 83 1/2 inches

Naotaka Hiro: Sand-man continues at Bortolami (39 Walker Street, Tribeca, Manhattan) through August 26. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

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John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook,...

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