Armor, The Box’s third solo exhibition with Naotaka Hiro (b. 1972, Osaka, Japan), is a visual representation of the complicated time that the pandemic has presented for the artist. Feeling the weight of the illness of COVID-19 on his body, and the political and cultural turmoil, the artist found solace in creating art as armor. Using the creation of the work as a means to process anxiety and confusion about the state of his body and the world, making barricades and shields in the work as a means of conservation. Hiro has always been interested in using his art practice as a way of better understanding parts of himself that are unseen; during this time and in the process of making this work he was able to expand his internal understanding. Hiro recalls his personal perspective:
During the quarantine, I was affected not only by physical illness, but also by the external chaos surrounding the election, the storming of the Capitol, and the increase in the number of hate crimes against Asians. They truly disturbed me. Such violence, continuously reported by the media, deeply shocked me. With dizziness from the sickness and the flood of terrible news, I felt my body was crushed internally and externally. The impact was so strong, I couldn't reject the horrendous feeling, it naturally slid into my work.
This exhibition presents work in a variety of mediums including two unstretched canvas paintings. This style of work is full-body scaled flatwork, in which Hiro engaged with the materials in a very physical way, enveloping his body in the canvas and creating an interior cavity in which to draw and paint upon the canvas. For Armor he has made new full-body scaled work using 1⁄2-inch-thick plywood panels measuring 7 feet wide by 8 feet high. There are six paintings, each with a sturdy frame wedged into the board enabling the artist to stand upon the works during production. These will be displayed as vertical screens in the space, in a barricade-like presentation, creating a partitioned gallery space. Along with these, there will be 10 smaller 58 x 42 inch wood panel pieces, displayed as a monumental grid on the back wall. These smaller panels are moments in which Hiro explores fragments of the body, focusing on specific parts as opposed to the whole body as he does in the larger panels.
Hiro approaches all of the wood paintings in a very specific way; placing it about two feet above the ground he gets underneath them to make the initial imagery, and then flips the piece over looking at it from above, refining the image to completion. The characteristics of the two-part process are distinct. The first step is subjective, instinctive, and organic, mostly drawing with graphite. In contrast, the second step is objective and sober, akin to editing or post production. Hiro goes back and forth between the steps as explained here:
For the wood painting series, I tried to physically separate the two-step procedure. Again, I crawled underneath the wood panel and laid flat with a face-up position. With the physical limitation, I have to keep my body quite close to the surface. I drew, often with both hands, reflecting my body parts, positions, and movement. I flipped the board over, stood, and sat on it to analyze, edit, and paint colors in. I repeated until the distinctions and binary systems got blurry and abstract, merging the two personal worlds.
The titular work for the show, Armor is a new bronze sculpture that acts as a grounding object in the space holding and centering the energy in the room. This is not accidental. This blue tinted bronze is shield-like with spindly legs and feet that hang down from the torso. This is an example of how Hiro literally manifested a shield of protection for himself. With these body cast works the artist is not interested in creating a true representation of himself, he is interested in the abstraction of the body, reinterpreting and recontextualizing how he sees his own image based on his conscious understanding of self.
Naotaka Hiro (b. 1972, Osaka, Japan) lives and works in Los Angeles. He received his B.F.A. from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1997 and M.F.A. from the California Institute of the Arts in 2000. Solo exhibitions include In the Ravine at Misako & Rosen, Tokyo (2019); Subterranean & Wanderer at Brennan & Griffin, New York (2019); and Peaking at The Box, Los Angeles (2016). Recent group exhibitions include Seven Stations: Selections from MOCA’s Collection at MOCA, Los Angeles (2020); In the Meanwhile... at Santa Barbara Museum of Art (2020); 50+50: A Creative Century from Chouinard to CalArts, REDCAT, Los Angeles (2020); Le Hanger at Maison de Rendez-Vous, Brussels (2020); Made in L.A. 2018, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; A Modest Proposal at Hauser & Wirth, New York (2016); and Men in LA: Three Generations of Drawings: Naotaka Hiro, Paul McCarthy, and Benjamin Weissman (2014) at The Box, Los Angeles.
Image: detail of Naotaka Hiro Untitled (Ado), 2020, acrylic, graphite, grease pencil, crayon on wood, 42 x 58 inches.
Naotaka Hiro paints with his whole body. The artist often stands inside of holes cut into his canvas, wrapping the material around himself and painting in a tent-like cocoon. As such, each of his paintings on view downtown at The Box map the capacities—and limitations—of his own body.
Arranged in the center of the gallery are a series of freestanding large-scale paintings on panels, propped up on bases and arranged in a “U” shape. For these pieces, as well as a series of smaller works, Hiro suspended the panels horizontally two feet above the ground, and crawled below to create his initial marks. He then inverted the process, standing on top of the panel, and responding to the marks he made while contorted below them.
Hiro suffered from COVID-19 during the pandemic, and alongside the many social injustices that have occurred over the last year, he felt that his “body was crushed internally and externally.” Through his idiosyncratic process, this physicality and vulnerability become visually tracked—scratchy lines and bold colors clash as visceral forms slump and ruminate in tense fields of pattern and abstraction. In the center of the U of panels, a blue-painted bronze figure, cast from the artist’s own form, feels both feeble and strong—as Hiro’s painting practice involves exploring the capacity of his own body, the bronze work, titled “Armor,” becomes a stand-in for the artist himself, resilient and strong, even after a year of turmoil.