Yuji Nagai, born 1978 in Hyogo, Japan, lives and works in Tokyo. Recent selected exhibitions include: Avanti, Jagla Ausstellungsraum, Michael Horbach Stiftung, Cologne; TRANCE: A show by Albert Oehlen, Aishti Foundation, Beirut; Membran, Warhus Rittershaus, Cologne; Fasi Lunari (curated by Albert Oehlen & Francesco Stocchi), Fondazione Carriero, Milan; Cat´s Whiskers, Warhus Rittershaus, Cologne; and Nicole Eisenmann, Friedrich Kuhn, Yuji Nagai, Trevor Shimizu (curated by Fredi Fischli & Niels Olsen), Nicolas Krupp Contemporary Art, Basel.
Don’t unplant the plants
by Maya Oehlen
After guitar players, cute horses and cats Yuji Nagai now paints flowers and plants. Colourful leaves, root vegetables, blossoms, butterflies, and bare trees. Is this an ode to nature? Ambient painting next to wild flower arrangements each more brutal than the next? Geometrically arranged beetroot mugshots are added to the mix and capture my attention with a seemingly esoteric touch and a feigned clumsiness (I know from my own attempts). I want to know what all this is about.
Plainchant, or plainsong, is a reference point in Yuji Nagai’s oeuvre. Plainchant consists of the most simple musical structure: a single melodic line played by only one instrument or person that unfurls in large spaces like cathedrals, and in the hearts of those who are sitting in them. Yuji’s paintings are constructed in a similar way. They begin with the structure of the flowers – dots and lines – that unfurl in the frame and make up the foundation of the paintings.
In contrast to Yuji’s raspberry lassi-drinking kittens I wouldn’t see these new works as pertaining to a genre of pseudo-naive painting. With a clear concept and nasty colour combinations these floral ulcers stand out against the dark ground. Yuji’s colour palette is reaching puberty: colour tones with difficult names flow into one another; the blue skies and the yellow suns are missing; the blossoms are in slow decay. Autumn is coming and foliage falls to the floor. The fallen leaves have been separated from the blossoms; a single butterfly has gone astray on the paper, and what remains are the bare trees. The garden has been dismantled, everything has been carried away in plastic bags and banged against the walls. Times are tough at the Blumenwiese Mainau.
Unlike in his earlier works, which either delivered technical mastery or completely ignored any aspiration thereto, this exhibition consists in a cheeky in-between. According to Yuji one paints best when one is bound to no rules, free of any constraints. Here, however, rules seem to make sense, as they create a coherency between the individual works. The artist has a concrete image in mind for what is supposed to be painted. So what we see are repeated motives in different arrangements using different techniques. Some consist of hasty brush strokes, while others have been made with Bob Ross-like dexterity. Some enchant us with their delicacy, while others shock us with their roughness. And thus, the paintings are pitted against each other, provoking one another. And we can’t fight it in any way.