Kohei Nawa presents 'Trans-figure'
at Pace Gallery

Japanese artist tries on new skin in collection on display at Palo Alto gallery
Artist Kohei Nawa's 'PixCell-Maral Deer,' on display in his 'Trans-figure' collection at Pace Gallery in Palo Alto. Photo courtesy of Pace Gallery

An animal glitters in the artificial light at the center of the gallery. Immobile, it stands almost 10 feet tall, 4 feet of which are antlers. Hundreds of round glass beads encase it in a clear, protective coat.

Up close, they look like crystal balls of varying sizes that have been affixed in a precise design. Through these prismatic lenses, you can make out the coarse, finely preserved hairs on the body of a taxidermied deer. PixCell-Maral Deer is the finest example of organic materials colliding with inorganic ones in Kohei Nawa's "Trans-figure" at Pace Palo Alto.

According to the gallery's director, Justine Chausson, Nawa, a Japanese artist based in Kyoto, bought the already dead deer on eBay. He's applied the same technique—creating a second skin—to other once-living things also on display, including a penguin and a tiny, yellow duckling that's full of pathos. It should be swimming with its mother and siblings instead of standing on dry land encrusted in glass barnacles. In the largest room of the gallery, however, Nawa changes his approach and coats a small village of found objects in polyurethane foam.

In Villus, the artist has arranged a group of items—the largest at the back of the room, the smallest at the front—and placed them on square, white, waist-high pillars. The foam deforms everything there with curdled growths that look like hardened cottage cheese. A hand grenade, a folded wheelchair, a bonsai, a bull's skull, a rubber ducky; they all appear to be suffering from an unhealthy bloat. Nawa has transformed them into spectral outlines of their former selves. A life-size ram, probably not a real one, retains its original shape. As treated, though, it becomes something else now that its off-white wool is sealed inside an artificial shell.

The artist is also experimenting with another textural element in the room. He casts colored LED lights down onto the sculpture. They're programmed cyclically, to hold on the objects for a minute or two before changing color, and then stopping on them once again. One set of colors, yellow, green and pink, added another visual dimension to the piece, as if you were suddenly looking at it through 3-D glasses. The other combinations of colors didn't add much to the experience, besides making for a pretty light show.

Other objects in the backroom appear in a third treatment, made of silicon carbonate particles. A toy bear's head and a toy bunny are coal black, but they also sparkle with silver flecks of aluminum powder. Glass, foam and silicon—much of the exhibit is concerned with layers of synthetic skin. Villus's is static and cold. You don't want to touch anything. With the inclusion of a Mario brother and other toys, it drifts into whimsy ("It's a Small World" wouldn't be out of place if there were a soundtrack playing). Without the lights, the objects just stand blankly on their pedestals without much to say. It's like looking into an empty mirror. Nothing is reflected back at you.

In comparison, the towering deer and the duckling that could fit in the palm of your hand still contain the animals' souls. Or, rather, the artist has restored the soul to its owner by giving it a second skin. Nawa's practice ranges wider than this one subject. His website lists at least a dozen categories in which he's classified his work. This is his first solo show in the U.S. and, as such, really only serves to introduce him here.

"Trans-figure" also includes a series of paintings titled Direction. He paints them at an angle with monochromatic straight lines. They're less inviting than Piet Mondrian's warm geometry. But online, Nawa demonstrates the process of making them. The camera follows the slow drip of his thick, inky paints. His approach is meticulous and painstaking, but an interesting method doesn't necessarily guarantee an interesting result.

There's something both ugly and beautiful about the deer and the duckling. It feels like Nawa is breaking some taboo by repurposing the dead to serve his art. You can find more of those contradictions on his website than in the gallery, and they're worth seeking out. Especially the ones where the paint oozes outside the lines. His work is disciplined enough to withstand, and benefit from, occasional doses of confusion and disorder.

Thru Feb. 25
Pace Gallery, Palo Alto

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