Keiko Narahashi "Presence" for Studio Journal

I had a studio visit on May 9, 2017 with Keiko Narahashi, whose work was part of my exhibition at The Educational Alliance Gallery in 2004, an exploration of cubes and grids titled SQUARED. I was curious as to what she’d been up to, and contacted her on her web site. It was great to see her and catch up. She had a little bit of everything from her creative history on view, so I was able to consider her growth. There had been a lot of it. I can’t speak to all the growth, but can give you a snapshot of a few of the moves she has made.

Narahashi is still a sculptor, though she has moved through more traditional modes of expression like ceramics, from the painted canvas constructions I saw before. Those were experimental and were a movement away from painting. There is still a strong color element in her work but it operates in concert with a very fragile quality of form, to the degree that it seems most ephemeral. Only in her most recent work is the painterliness returning.

The works I was most fascinated by are from the last few years. They are primarily intimate in scale, and their range of effects are limited to color, placement, and the imposition of caricature oriented silhouettes that me in mind of characters in Dickens novels, whose outward appearance were parcel to a range of perverse impressions. Faces have been a long-standing aspect of art since its very inception; and silhouettes the most amorphous of them, tracing a solitary line through space, using shadow and mass to impose a material presence.

One might say that presence has always figured highly in Narahashi’s work, even at times when all that signified it was a mark. Yet in the different phases of her creative endeavor, she has found way to impose a degree of presence, by presenting objects that idiosyncratically embody a quirkiness and a light touch. Though work by work they may seem impossibly subtle; cumulatively, especially in accrual of much time passed, they achieve a menagerie of inflection. One can begin to appreciate them, in a succession of examples, one against the other.

Narahashi’s newest bodies of work are aggregates rather than succinct series, and yet the each have a distinct character that seems only to share a ‘family resemblance’ in terms that are rhetorical between them. The ones with edges suggestive of faces are called her “Physiognomist Project” and date from 2012 onward. These are cast in ceramic material and glazed to create a deep color that acts as a mood inducer in constructive and accretive use to aid the impression given by her caricature inspired silhouettes. We spoke of characters such as those that have filled the novels of Charles Dickens, farcical and perverse figures meant to play against the naturalistic realness of his protagonists, creating not only an adventure for a young mind still inadept in dealing with the complexities of human character, but a picaresque adventure at that, in which the array of caricatures is like a societal mirror reflected back to the reader by the honest, “straight man” attitude of a protagonist unaffected by their bathetic attitudes. Narahashi’s characters are moods rather than people, and any projection of her intent through them is purely incidental.

Beginning in 2015, she started a series of atypically modern abstract works she calls “Picture Frames” that individually prove almost too subtle but that when viewed as an aggregate, create a flow of oblique impressions that are like visual music. These works are some of her most contemplative, and despite their minimalism, they impose a sense of presence without the needs for undue dramatization. They are, in some way, equivalent to emojis, that endless array of poignant punctuations that have become, in recent years, a serialized and simultaneous language for the younger generation of social media users that hearkens back to a forgotten era when a mark or a sign told more than a novel could.

This past year saw Narahashi diverging in her interest, on the ones hand devising a series of staged miniscule versions of the Picture Frames works that are actively inspired by the circus constructions of Alexander Calder. They remain adamantly minimal but are placed upon short black stages, creating mis-en-scenes out of the suggestive tones that painting gives to her work. The other new series are her Metal Faces, and in these the depictive aspects which were long ago buried resurface to play out dramas that go beyond a mark or a mood. Perhaps the painter in her will return. 

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