Both director and historian, Patrick Nagatani is a sorcerer of stories. The Albuquerque-based artist conjures universes on canvas, combining photography, masking tape, magazine clippings and stories to create meditations on both the spiritual and the physical.
“Outer and Inner: Contemplations on the Physical and the Spiritual” is up at the Andrew Smith Annex Gallery in Santa Fe. The exhibition is a large survey of the artist’s work across the past 15 years. Many pieces have never been seen publicly before.
“At first glance, it looks like three different artists,” Nagatani acknowledged in a telephone interview. “I’m interested in a body of work – I’m interested in a dialogue between them all.”
A self-described, self-invented “tape-ist,” the artist began working obsessively with the sticky but translucent medium in 1983. “Tape-estries” explores the Buddhist roots of a man who was raised Catholic by his Japanese-American parents. As they aged and began to decline, Nagatani began researching their original faith and its history. But first he photographed Christian and Catholic religious structures across Europe. He spray-painted the images, using masking tape to protect the areas he decided to leave bare.
“On one of the Catholic pieces, I cut the tape more precisely and did a cobblestone street,” he explained. “That opened up the doors.
“I started looking specifically at goddesses, the bodhisattvas of compassion.”
He began by photographing sculptures at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and borrowing from textbook images. He used Photoshop to add missing fingers and broken lotus blossoms to aged statues.
“The cheapest (tape) is the most valuable in my mind,” he said, “because there’s transparency. I think about what type and where it is like a painter deciding what colors. It’s a very time-oriented thing. There’s more of a meditative quality, so I paint with my tape.”
The tape work adds a layer of opaqueness to the figures, as well as a veil of transcendence. He gravitated toward the mudras, or symbology of the hands in the female deities.
“Guanyin” (2009) is a bodhisattva of compassion and kindness venerated by East Asian Buddhists. Her name means “Observing the Sounds (or Cries) of the World.” In Nagatani’s image, the circular lines of her halo and the blue lotus she holds are the strongest hues. “Mahasthamaprapta” (2009) means “arrival of the great strength.” In China, the deity is portrayed as a woman. The iconic figure stands in the center of the picture in front of radiating halo-like circles.
“The Race” evolved out of a novel Nagatani is writing about 15 female pilots. The idea germinated from a British newspaper article about the discovery of 36 Spitfire airplanes found buried in Burma after World War II. In Nagatani’s version, a female CEO helps find and refurbish the aircraft to make them float planes. Each pilot gets her own biography. The series features Nagatani’s constructed plastic model airplanes over photographs of skyscapes, oceans and clouds.
“Red/11: Ludmilla Litvyck” shows the plane of a woman who grew up in Russia’s Ural Mountains. Her dreams of flight became possible after the fall of Communism.
“Yellow/13: Nanibah Jackson” is a Navajo/Laguna American Indian who was born in Albuquerque. In Nagatani’s telling, she spent her childhood building model airplanes because she had few friends. “They’re in flight for the race,” he said. “They each have a color – sometimes related to the pilot. The cloud images came from a pilot friend of mine.”
The artist’s “Novellas” represent the physical side of the show. A tangled jumble of red-soaked body parts, many clipped from muscle magazines, convey both intrigue and horror surrounding Polaroid print transfers. The theme emerged after the artist completed his famous “Nuclear Enchantment” series about the impact of the atomic age on New Mexico.
“I just craved magical realism like (the writer) Gabriel Garcia Marquez,” he said.
He started collecting images of weight lifters and bathing beauties from periodicals.
“It’s the idealized body and the superficiality about it,” he explained, ” – it’s not about the mind. With weight lifters, it was all about power poses. And this woman emerges from the pieces screaming. That was me screaming. I wanted to make them beautiful but grotesque – like looking into a can of worms.”
Gallery owner Smith credits Nagatani with creating “directive photography.”
“It’s about constructing a picture; it’s not about taking a picture,” he said. “You have to decode them.”
Nagatani has long created his own tableaux, sometimes incorporating miniature scale models, life-sized sculptures, painted sets and actors. He often paints his own photographs.
The theatrical nature of his work dates to his experiences working in the film industry during the ’70s, where he built special effects models for films such as “Blade Runner” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
Born in Chicago, Nagatani arrived just days after the Enola Bay dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. He moved to Albuquerque from California in the late 1980s and taught photography at the University of New Mexico.