C’Ville Art Blog: Paint and ceramic meditations at the Firefish Gallery

Detail of painting by local artist Ken Nagakui. Image courtesy of the artist. Detail of painting by local artist Ken Nagakui. Image courtesy of the artist.

What is perception? Philosophers, psychologists, and ophthalmologists have studied this question for years, but none have studied as vividly or exhaustively as visual artists.

Subtle nuances of memory, culture, and aspiration within us dictate how we see the world and how we respond to it. In this way, every artist sees the world differently, but also manipulates the perceptions of the viewer to evoke worlds with distinctive voices and capture alien beauty in a multitude of ways.

Local artist, Ken Nagakui is one such unique individual. His current exhibit, “A Retrospective of Paintings and Ceramics” at the Firefish Gallery offers a distinct view derived directly from Nagakui’s personal perceptions and life experiences that bridge Japanese and American culture.

The exhibit showcases two mediums of the artist’s choice: paintings and ceramics. The paintings are all created in a neutral palette and display the use of quick, short brushstrokes in a painterly fashion. Each piece captures the image of specific trees in various browns, grays, and moss greens. The ceramics also gravitate towards the earthy both in the organic quality of the shapes and the color palette. Amidst the sea of balanced neutral browns, Nagakui’s work could appear dreary. The craftsmanship, however, is impeccable, and each work is activated by subtle nuances and delicate structures which emerge over time.

A native of Japan, Nagakui sees the world from a very distinctive point of view; one that comes to life in the subdued quality of his work. His paintings evoke a strange sense of time and space. Although not overwhelmingly warm or cool in the way that the Western impressionists may have seen it, instead the light is captured as if it is as timeless as a shifting old memory. Every branch, twig, and leaf is captured and rendered with a sense of transience, movement, and life.

Buddhist and Shinto traditions honor the inherent integrity of everything that is natural in its ever-changing state. There is also an element of sadness in the work. According to Buddhism, emptiness, impermanence, and suffering are three traits carried within every sentient being. These qualities also seem to permeate Nagakui’s work in true wabi-sabi fashion. This contrasts with much of the history of Western painting, which is more concerned with capturing and codifying nature than with exposing the frights that lurk deep within forests. 

There is a quality to Nagakui’s paintings that are capable of transporting one to Japan. The brushstrokes weave a quiet memory of a hot summer’s afternoon on a wooded knoll in a rural town. But this is where the real cultural perspective comes into play, as many of the trees in this show are in fact growing locally in Charlottesville.

Nagakui’s show is slow and meditative, and is in many ways reminiscent of process-oriented art. It offers an opportunity to glimpse the work of a dedicated craftsman. Nagakui built his own kiln from the ground up, digs his own clay, and builds his pottery by hand in a style similar to that of the early Jomon people of Japan. His love and reverence of nature is evident both in his work, and the way that he makes his art. The viewer can sense the care and vast experience used to create each object and this sense is what enriches the work in the show, and what makes the work most pleasurable to view.

“A Retrospective of Paintings and Ceramics” at the Firefish Gallery will remain on display through September 1.


-Rose Guterbock and Aaron Miller