In his artist’s statement for Winterstate, David Nakabayashi says the inspiration for his new stock of paintings is a near-death experience: a wintry car accident that left him stranded on the side of the road in
. These kinds of stories can represent truly life-altering moments that catalyze a personal re-evaluation. In Nakabayashi’s case, his experience led to a reflection in which he began to consider all the people and places he’d visited and how they’d converged and conspired to bring him to that moment—sort of a predestination type of thing.
I’m not denying that the moment was meaningful to him, but Nakabayashi isn’t saying how this event is translated in the current work. The show is a blend of fanciful juxtapositions between people and places surrounded by non-pictorial chaos. Nakabayashi plays coy, speaking about his inspiration rather than the content of his imagery.
According to his artist’s statement, “While the viewer is inclined to decipher these images, one need not understand the meaning of the icons and the situations in which they appear to appreciate their beauty and the skill with which they have been rendered.”
Well, duh. Nakabayashi is a very skilled realist. His fussy little brushstrokes wobble and weave into solid forms with an excellent modulation. But one gets the feeling there is much more to Nakabayashi’s imagery than technique. Some may prefer open-endedness, but ultimately I find the artist’s reticence frustrating, as if he’s holding out on us.
Don’t get me wrong: His works are fun to look at. But the inaccessibility leaves me wanting. The punny titles suggest connectivity but, rather than clarity, the works convey a feeling of puzzlement that borders on existentialism. Nearly every painting in the show consists of the same elements and formal devices, each as confounding as the last.
Blending differing modes of painting is a natural step for the times (Nakabayashi has successfully pulled this off in previous works), but the execution here is particularly jarring. The artist seemingly loses interest in working within a single cohesive style. Rather than play off of each other, his carefully wrought compositions abruptly give way to amorphous marks right out of a Gerhard Richter squeegee painting. Blobs and bubbles vignette the images like a lava lamp.
Unfortunately, the infusion of messy abstraction appears more like an unfinished work, and it detracts from the eerie serenity he creates. The abstract marks are continually overpowered by the illusionism of the rest of the composition, and they recede to the background.
As for the pictorial elements, Nakabayashi has a real knack for creating odd tension: A girl hovers high above an empty field; a hula dancer appears in the path of the
Monument as though held in a tractor beam.
With little deviation, Nakabayashi situates his figures in snowy fields or atop frozen bodies of water, empty markers of the Midwest. Towering in the distance are structures of modernity—skyscrapers, radio towers, grain silos—that serve to place the figures on the outskirts of a town, a kind of nowhere.
Due to their displacement, the figures appear lost—in thought or otherwise—as they stare off into space or stagger strangely like a palsied character in a Robert Longo drawing. I am tempted to classify Nakabayashi’s work as narrative paintings, but there is a distinct amount of nothing going on. Fixed in the frosty foregrounds, the people seem to be waiting for something to happen. As to what it might be, we’re never shown.
At its bizarre best, Winterstate’s works depict objects amputated and transposed onto other parts of the image. This, more than the competing styles, gives the impression of dreams and memories since, even at their most surreal and disjointed, ideas
and feelings are still concrete and nameable.
Like life, Winterstate contains some beautiful passages that fight to be noticed against the noise and clutter that surrounds everything.