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October 9 - November 6, 2004 at The Folk Tree, Pasadena

by Ray Zone

“Ephemeral Soup,” 2004,
polymer on tin, 18 x 14”.

“Collective Dream,” 2004,
polymer on tin, 18 x 14”.

“The God of Big Waves,” 2004,
polymer on tin, 18 x 14”.
“Since the village has gone global,” observes Joel Nakamura, “just about everything is up for grabs for its folk artists. I consider myself a modern folk artist.” With a new exhibit titled Ephemeral Soup, Silly Paintings During Serious Times, Nakamura explores a particularly rich artistic vein in which primitive imagery collides with post-millennial sensibility. Above all, Nakamura’s paintings are dynamically chromatic daydreams wherein myth is drawn with a childlike yet powerful expressiveness.

Working at a relatively small scale (18 x 14 inches) with polymer on tin, the tactile nature of Nakamura’s medium is important to him. The frames are built into the art, which always starts out as one piece. “I feel compelled to create a more physical connection to the art,” says Nakamura. Works such as this follow the tradition of painting images on tin sheets in central Mexico. The scenarios are reminiscent of Surrealism as well as Mexican folk art. The childlike canvases of Rufino Tamayo and Joan Miro, with their primary color arrays, come instantly to mind.

Nakamura, however, has created symbolic narratives that are highly evocative and potentially dense with meaning. The viewer may simply choose to delight in the colorful and whimsical imagery. But underlying the chromatic playfulness and whimsy is a humanistic core around which swirl icons of the subconscious. The title painting, Ephemeral Soup, for example, depicts a giraffe on an empty, cracked landscape beneath a deep blue night sky. That celestial vault could well be the night sky of the dreaming mind. This sky lends an aura to all things under it. It is a sky sparse with few stars, two amorphous white clouds and a butterfly--that symbol of metamorphosis.

The head of the giraffe is that of an alien deity with rows of jagged teeth and two beehives for eyes. This faintly African creature has the top of its head lopped off to reveal a bowl of blue liquid out of which emerges a dragonfly. The dragonfly has a green monkey’s head and two mechanical ‘beaters’ for feet that are emerging from the aqueous blue as he flies up into a red vapor filled with glowing suns. A blue man-in-the-moon adorns the dragonfly’s chest, and out of the mouth of the alien giraffe a long tongue darts, stopping a small banana with a pair of dragonfly’s wings in mid-air. Strange plants in the background slither like serpents skyward out of the cracked soil. In the distance an odd pineapple sits impassively on the horizon.

The entire painting is a theatre of metamorphosis in which the microcosm emerges from out of the macrocosm. The imagery connects to the viewer in a way that bypasses the conscious and logical mind. It bypasses culture and ethnicity, language and religion. It is out of the very ‘silliness’ of this painting, its nocturnal junctures of unlikely realities, that the force of the work is derived. A thorough and very broad humanity informs its simplicity. The painting depicts a place which we all have visited, athwart the dreaming mind, transfixed in sleep.

Another painting of Nakamura’s conveys, with deft simplicity, our human connection through a supernal image. Collective Dream depicts a tree of royal purple and blue. At the base of the tree and at its crown is a bird with wings outstretched. Human figures are adjoined by their heads to the trunk of the tree. Two hands and a wing also sprout out of the tree trunk. The birds, the figures and the hands all appear to be limbs and leaves of the tree. The unity of the disparate elements form a single blue tree within which are celestial stars.

This tree of life, so reminiscent of the zephiroth of the Kabbala, is set against an active luminescent background filled with floating heads, hands, figures, eyes, clouds and molecular structures. Birds in folklore quite frequently symbolize the human soul. In the context of Nakamura’s painting the birds seem to illustrate the soul’s entry into mortal life at the base of the tree and its exit at the crown. Nakamura’s tree is visual dream language of the highest order.