UNM Art Museum, Albuquerque
April 27 – July 28, 2018
The whir of air conditioning swells as viewers descend the stairs of the UNM Art Museum into the cave-like rooms that contain Patrick Nagatani: A Survey of Early Photographs. Blonde wood chairs sit at the bottom of the staircase in the monkish quiet, inviting visitors into the vastness of the space and the diversity of work contained within it.
In the two-room gallery, a certain trajectory is apparent, just in a glance—this survey being truly that: a survey. The exhibition, curated by Mary Statzer, illustrates the foundational practices of an iconic photographer in his early years. Within the fifty images, certain fascinations are evidenced that stayed with Nagatani throughout his career.
Selections from two series, Colorful Cathedrals and Celestial Earthscapes are the first visitors encounter. Here, obscured churches rise from shadow only to fade into the engulfing negative space of night; a crucifix is fixed in a pyramid of primary colors; ghostly hands offer up images within the image; lunar horizons climb to meet outer space. Glancing across the horizontal run of these photographs, we understand intuitively that Nagatani was long on the trail of something ancient.
From the cache of hundreds of photos donated to the museum before his death in 2017, here we see the artist—early on, before he arrived in New Mexico—constructing his own system of meaning through the medium of photography. Particularly in selections from series contained in the exhibition like Chroma Room, we see the artist’s flair for building narrative into the visual. This underlines not just his magnificent technical control, but the manipulation possible in a form once thought to be unequivocally true. This inquiry into authority and distortion in truth-making follows Nagatani even late into his career, as in his documentation of fictional excavations in Buried Cars.
Yet, even as fictions, much of the work in A Survey of Early Photographs connects to an almost inborn sense of truth, bringing an emotional honesty to the composition. In Celestial Earthscapes, Nagatani uses common household items to create enigmatic images of deep space, an exploration he conflated with spirituality. The connection seems a natural one, as so many existential questions are rooted (if they can be in such terrain) in the heavens. The beautiful trick of this series, though, is that Nagatani explores the stars while Earth-bound, using aluminum foil and mirrors—the most common of supplies—as the vehicles for this voyage into the most potent cosmic questions.
This existential asking is never approached with cynicism, but instead a sense of wonder. Nagatani’s translation of mystery and discovery into matter is on full display in the Chroma Room series, beautifully presented in a smaller offset gallery whose walls are painted a deep shade of blue. In this series from the ’70s, when Nagatani was a graduate student in California, a directorial style both theatrical and story-rich surfaces—an approach he refined throughout his long career. To construct the series, Nagatani dove into his interest in chromatherapy, an alternative medicine practice of using color as an agent for healing. Over the course of nearly a year, Nagatani painted a room in his house different colors, creating work based on the influence of each distinct hue. Both the mystical and mysterious emerge in the small room. In Chroma Room (Yellow) Nagatani manages to find spatial depth through layering figures and objects, some placed at such a distance as to be obscured from the shot. This sense of drama, this blurring at the edges—shot through with the veiled magic of color—has a unique capacity to muster curiosity. As we conjure our own stories to explain these scenes, we are folded into the creative process and the quest to create meaning.
Wonderment is a word I have returned to often in considering this exhibition. It seems to finally be the thread that courses through all fifty images, even the most spare portraits. The construction of truth and Nagatani’s adventurous approach to its interrogation is a new canon no less sacred than the churches and distant moons he photographed. The ability to gaze deep into mystery and distill the question—never the answer—into sophisticated, at times playful, imagery is the purest sort of magic we have here on Earth. In keeping with the artist’s spirit of generosity, it is the viewer who is tempted closer to the project of creating a story to match the image, to participate in the chorus of answers to the old questions. Here, even in Nagatani’s origins, we see that enigmatic quality that persisted and gathered momentum throughout his vast and incomparable body of work. Even as we are forced to question the making of truth in this medium, the compelling beauty of these works remains absolute, landing us, finally, at something unambiguous.