Patrick Nagatani


March 30 - May 14 , 2001

Dr. Ting, ACL, Meaghan (ACL Reconstruction) [ Model: Ting Xu ] , 2005

"I am interested in making images that theatrically depict colored light healing and stated in frank terms, I am interested in creating cinematic narrative images that are medical charades of Chromatherapy." - Patrick Nagatani

Andrew Smith Gallery of Santa Fe, New Mexico is bringing Patrick Nagatani's spectacularly colored cinematic narrative, Chromatherapy, to the AIPAD New York Photography Fair in February 2006 and to Santa Fe in March 2006. Chromatherapy is the latest body of constructed photographs by Patrick Nagatani, one the founding artists of photography's Contemporary Constructive Movement. The exhibition will be previewed at the AIPAD Fair February 9 - 12, 2006. In March 2006 it will be installed at the Andrew Smith Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

The Chromatherapy project, begun in 1978 while Nagatani was still living in Los Angeles, has occupied the artist in between other large projects for the past twenty-five years. The series of color photographs relate to the subject of chromatherapy, or "color healing." With roots in ancient Egypt and China, chromatherapy involves the belief that shining the rays from colored lamps on afflicted areas can cure diseased organs of the body. In contrast to conventional medicine's often aggressive, drug-oriented methods, chromatherapy offers a gentle, noninvasive cure for all kinds of illnesses.

Reminding viewers that light is the basic tool of photography, Nagatani creates real and imaginary relationships between photography, light and healing, as he photographs persons, animals and objects being exposed to a variety of colored lights. The artist is also exploring popular culture's fascination with growth and healing, teasing the fine line between a staged fiction masking as a documented reality, and the undeniable need humans have to embrace magic and pagan rituals for their own sake.

Along with tableaux artists Thomas Demand, Gregory Crewdson and Sandy Skoglund, Nagatani pioneered the Contemporary Constructive Movement in the late 1970s. He has been highly influential in developing a vocabulary of ideas and presentation based on constructing large scale sculptures, small models, and paintings in front of the camera. Nagatani controls the scene by manipulating the camera's narrow depth of field with forced perspective, a filmmaking technique used to create optical illusions such as making objects appear smaller or larger, or appear far away when set space is limited. Having built and then photographed his sets, Nagatani prints the images as Polaroid, Cibachrome or Ilfoflex photographs before destroying the sets.

Nagatani's protean creativity is matched by an intellectual grasp about serious issues and events that comprise and threaten contemporary society. Over several decades he has explored such subjects as the nuclear waste industry, anachronistic archeology, prisoner of war camps, and apocalyptic disasters of all kinds. The theatrical dimension of his works reflects his experiences in the Hollywood film industry in the 1970s. The vivid nightmare scenarios he portrays are safely contained within the boundaries of the photographs, the horror of each event mitigated by dashes of slapstick or macabre humor, and fantastic displays of color and imagination. His work has been described as tableau vivant on an operatic scale.

Nagatani learned state-of-the-arts filmmaking and model building techniques when he worked for several major movie companies in Hollywood in the 1970s. His work for sci-fi movies made by Steven Speilberg and George Lucas included building models of the futuristic architecture in the film Bladerunner, and the mother ship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Nagatani's Hollywood experiences are the basis for the directorial mode he assumes when arranging people and props in front of his camera to fabricate his images.

Many people genuinely believe that color has a tangible effect on mental and emotional states. Chromatherapy is widely practiced in India as an Ayurveda healing technique, while in the West it is being incorporated in high-end spa and bath designs. Nagatani's Chromatherapy series is filled with enough magic realism to encourage viewers to suspend disbelief and entertain the idea that there actually exists a wonderful, non-invasive alternative to surgery and drugs. Nagatani's photographs encourage us to believe that curing serious illness may be no more stressful than taking a warm bath.

In the photograph Acephalous Tonation Testing, 1978/2004 a woman stands against a black background exposing her bare back to three colored square films. A studio light shines through the films, casting light, shadow and colors on the contours of flesh. Nagatani is making a link between colored light as a healing tool, and the phenomena of light as the essence of photography itself.

Nagatani has written, "All light is visible radiant energy and travels through space in forms of waves. As it travels, it also vibrates. Colors, light, and heat are thus related to wavelengths. These waves very in length and the individual variations are the bases of each color."

In the photograph Chroma Absorption, 2004 three measuring beakers filled with water or some other transparent liquid sit below three chrome studio lights. Colored lights shine into each glass, tinting the liquid and the transparent glasses. As a hand grasps one of the glasses the impression is that this subtle "medicine" contains nothing material, merely the healing qualities of light waves.

"In the Middle Ages," writes Nagatani," the great cathedrals of Europe had stained glass windows which were used in healing. When the ill were placed in the light from the windows many miraculous cures were recorded."

The photograph Multi-Tonation of Anomalies, 1997/2004 is an exquisite composition of greens, reds and yellow. Two hands, one clearly deformed, rest gently on green leafy plants, illuminated and transformed by brilliant red and yellow lights.

Nagatani, who always sees two sides of the coin, balances chromatherapy's positivistic fantasy of healing with a sinister dimension. Twisting the subject in on itself, chromatherapy can also be seen as an exotic hoax. In some images the intense colored lights, chrome equipment, sterile tile surfaces, and tubular devices have a clinical coldness that conjures up uneasy ideas of the "doctor as god." This is the shadow side of any medical approach disconnected from real compassion that intrudes mercilessly, less interested in the patient's needs and limitations than in test results and financial gain.

In a composition flooded with yellow light titled Singularity, 1978/2004 a hand holds an outstretched foot with a triangular discoloration near the ankle, exposing it to yellow lamp light. Nagatani drastically crops these figures into mannequin like body parts. The background suggests a doctor's office with anatomical charts on the wall. But there is a suggestion of pain here. Several potted cactus plants are in close proximity to the bare and vulnerable leg and foot. In the foreground a lamp stand, slightly out of focus, resembles a sharp-toothed saw.

On yet another level, Nagatani questions the medical model's impulse to interfere with the natural order of things. In Genetic Modification, 2004/2005 a nest with two bird's eggs is exposed to violent purple light that threatens to penetrate and perhaps alter the embryos even before they have been born, before anything is actually known about their unique nature. According to some of these images, the organic processes of life and death are being massively disrupted by the intrusion of "science," be it pharmaceutical, surgical, or merely a handful of colored lights.

Nagatani has produced a number of oversized photographs ranging from 20" x 36" to 40" x 72" mounted on anodized aluminum with wood brace mounts on the back.   In Neurological Stimulation, 1978/2004 (20" x 36")  a woman wearing Polaroid glasses intently studies  X-rays under a bright light.  Tucked off to the side  several cigarette packs represent an alternative, if unhealthy form of stimulation.

Tonation in Color Charged H20, 2004 (30" x 54") shows a nurse bending over a body floating in a tub of water. Nagatani's feelings about color are quite specific. Hell is the color of red and fleshstones. Heaven is colored in blues and nurse-uniform white. Greens suggest the land of the living in which anatomy, biology, physics and medicine are the threatres of survival.

In Ryoichi and Sid, 2005 (30" x 54") a drawing on the wall of the human anatomy reveals the skeleton and organs beneath the flesh. A man stands in front of it, his robes parted to reveal a surgically created opening in his lower stomach designed to connect his inner intestinal tract to an ostemy bag that would normally be hidden by clothing.  Reiterating the message of "revelation,"  a theatrical red curtain on the right is held open by braided cords.

In Dr. Ting, (ACL Reconstruction) [ Model: Ting Xu ], 2005 (42" x 72") a doctor examines the scar on the knee of a patient as she adjusts a curious machine called a Chromaray."  The tapering leaves of a house plant caress the patient's leg, their shapes mimicking the doctor's sensitive, tapering fingers.

The photographs in Chromatherapy are printed by Nagatani on Ilfoflex 2000 paper.  The prism-like colors he achieves are as much the content of the works as the subjects described. Electric blues, hot yellows, poisonous greens, and theatrical purples flow over these prints. Nagatani has spent his lifetime translating his thoughts into color images. For him color is language.

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Born in Chicago in 1945 to Japanese-American parents Nagatani moved with his family to Los Angeles. As a child he loved making models, a passion that served him later when he built models for Hollywood sci-fi films. He taught photography at colleges in the Los Angeles area. At UCLA Nagatani studied with photographer Robert Heineken who inspired him to construct his own large scale photographic tableaux in front of the camera. Collaborating with the artist Andree Tracey who provided painted portions of the imagery, Nagatani's images from this period portrayed an somnambulistic consumer society living on the edge of obliteration from various disasters: earthquakes, tidal waves, subway crashes, AIDS, and nuclear holocaust.

Nagatani arrived in Albuquerque in 1987 to teach photography at the University of New Mexico. He quickly discerned that the state's nuclear industry was the underbelly of the so-called "Land of Enchantment," and he researched the subject for two years in preparation for his mammoth work, "Nuclear Enchantment" (1991). Using the same creative blend of photography, sculpture, and painting he had developed in Los Angeles, Nagatani built and photographed panoramas, eventually creating forty images, a limited edition portfolio, and a book published by UNM Press.

In the next decade Nagatani produced other comprehensive projects. In the "Japanese-American Concentration Camps" (1995) series he photographically documented what remains of many Japanese internment camps erected in the western United States during World War II. In "Evacuations" (2001) he pushed the "malleable picture space" of the photograph, borrowing techniques from archeological fieldwork to explore ways in which photography creates, recreates, or supports a particular history. Current projects include "Taped Pieces" and "Chromatherapy."

Currently Nagatani is working on various projects in his multi-room studio close to the University of New Mexico. He is recovering from a recent bout with cancer, though this has scarcely diminished his tireless creative energy. He was on medical leave from the UNM art department where he has taught for twenty years, but has resumed teaching in 2006.

Nagatani's work is in over fifty important public collections nationally and internationally. He has received numerous awards and grants including two major National Endowment for the Arts Visual Artist Grants.

Liz Kay

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