The “Desire for Magic: Patrick Nagatani” exhibition will open at the Japanese American National Museum on Saturday, Nov. 19, presenting 30 years of varied work by artist Patrick Nagatani, including his collaborations, staged photographs, collages and multimedia pieces.
Created by the University of New Mexico’s University Art Museum and curator Michele Penhall in 2008, “Desire for Magic” represents Nagatani’s wide range of themes, including politics, popular culture, the post-nuclear world, and our fragile, ever-changing environment.
In the three-decade period beginning in 1978, Nagatani, like his works, has defied convention and labels. As an artist, he uses staged photography with carefully crafted props to become “a storyteller with images.” He has utilized masking tape as a form of tactile painting for a series Nagatani calls “Tape-estries.”
“My approach today dwells in an ironic state of middle ground,” Nagatani explains. “Possibly one negative in our culture today is the attitude that things must be fact or fiction, good or bad, truth or lies, black or white, right or wrong, all or nothing, big or small, expensive or cheap, violent or docile, and so on. This kind of thinking leaves no room for magic and possibilities in creative endeavor that might be in the gray area or middle earth.”
Influenced by his teacher and mentor from UCLA, Robert Heinecken, Nagatani in the mid-1970s chose to disregard “photographic truth” and to seek what he calls “the façade of representation.” Once a model maker for a company that made sets for movies and television, Nagatani applied those skills to his staged photography in the manner of a film director. Every object within the image was chosen to help tell a story and induce questions from the viewers about the veracity of the scene.
This exhibition brings together seven major series of Nagatani’s work, including “Japanese American Concentration Camps” (1993-1995), “Nuclear Enchantment” (1988-1993), “Nagatani/Tracey Polaroid Collaborations” (1983-1989), “Ryoichi/Nagatani Excavations” (1985-2001), “Novellas” (1992-2004), “Chromatherapy” (1978-2007), and “Tape-estries” (1982-2008).
The “Japanese American Concentration Camps” series presents the least amount of manipulation of Nagatani’s photographs. Among the thousands of Japanese Americans imprisoned in 10 major government-run camps during World War II were Nagatani’s parents, who had yet to meet and were imprisoned in different camps. He visited the 10 sites, located in mostly isolated areas within seven different states. This series captures the desolation and stark conditions where his parents and other Japanese Americans were held during the war.
“Nuclear Enchantment” represents Nagatani’s awareness of nuclear dilemmas, especially after he moved to New Mexico in 1987 to teach. The connections to New Mexico as an atomic bomb test site and to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are evident in Nagatani’s works in his collaboration with poet Joel Weishaus.
This theme also relates to the “Nagatani/Tracey Polaroid Collaboration.” In 1983, Nagatani gained access to a 20-inch by 24-inch Polaroid camera for two days. He worked with painter Andre Tracey and they created a series of images, using themselves as actors, exploring the consequences of a nuclear episode.
For almost 30 years, Nagatani has been working on his “Tape-estries” series. Using an amazing variety of masking tape in various shades and transparencies, he takes found photographs and uses pieces of tape to create a more three-dimensional work of art. “The taping process is obsessive,” he says. “It is done with precision and ardor. Masking tape is a simple material. The tearing and cutting parodies a variety of ‘brush strokes.’ Clarity often comes after a long session. More things are revealed to me after each session. Magic is a goal.”
Having this exhibition installed at JANM fulfills an important desire for the artist. “This is the place that my parents will come to see my work,” Nagatani explained. “This is the place where it belongs.”
About the Artist
Nagatani was born in Chicago, where his parents had met after being released from camp. Eventually, the family moved to Los Angeles’s Crenshaw district in what was then a strong Japanese American enclave. He earned his Master of Fine Arts from UCLA, where he studied under renowned conceptual photographer Robert Heinecken. In 1987, he moved to New Mexico and taught photography for 20 years.
For 20 years, Nagatani was a top professor in the University of New Mexico’s distinguished photography program. After retiring in 2007, he is now enjoying a career as full-time artist. He is among New Mexico’s most important and innovative photographers, a rare artist who reinvents himself with each new body of work.
His work has been presented in one-person exhibitions at the Albuquerque Museum, the California Museum of Photography, UC Riverside, CEPA Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y., Isla Center for the Arts at the University of Guam, Mangliao, and the Royal Photographic Society in Bath, England.
Michele Penhall is the curator of prints and ohotographs at the University of New Mexico Art Museum and has organized exhibitions that address historical issues and projects that speak to contemporary ideas. She has written on 20th-century Latin American photography and 21st-century artists.
Penhall has held the position of curator at UNM since 2004 and is in charge of the more than 13,000 prints, 1000 drawings and numerous photographs dating back to the dawn of photography in the mid-1800s. Her scholastic expertise lies in the late-19th-century photography of such South American photographers as Martín Chambi and the Vargas Brothers. She has dedicated much of her academic and professional career in studying and researching the photographs as well as the cultural context of these photographers and how it shaped their work.
A gallery walk-through and book-signing with Nagatani will be held on Saturday, Dec. 10, from 2 to 4 p.m. A free audio tour by cell phone is available by calling (213) 455-2924. The exhibition closes on Jan. 15.
JANM is located at 369 E. First St. in Little Tokyo. Gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday; 12 to 8 p.m. Thursday. Closed Mondays, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.
Admission is $9 for adults, $5 for seniors (62 and over), students (with ID) and youth (6-17), free for children under 5 and museum members. Free general admission every Thursday from 5 to 8 p.m. and every third Thursday of the month. Group rates available. For reservations, call (213) 625-0414.
For more information, visit www.janm.org.