We usually notice light in visual art when we see how it brings about or highlights some physical, emotional or spiritual quality in a painting. Light has also often been used in paintings to help create drama or develop a sense of ephemerality. In Kyoshi Nakagami’s new show at Galerie Richard in Paris, he will not allow light to play sidekick as the means to reveals other things, which then reveal light indirectly as color. Light steps forward and assumes center stage in its own epic drama. This light is produced from the very minerals of the Earth the artist uses to replace or supplement traditional media, taking shapes dependent on natural processes independent of the artist’s design. Thus, we see how light lends itself to an archetypal symbolism that has pervaded human history and culture.

What are some ways that light has been revealed or used in Western art? A few examples: Caravaggio championed chiaroscuro, a technique that contrasted light and darkness to add drama to events. Sharp lighting was often used to lend gravitas to the religious and emotional aspects of his paintings. Rembrandt, following Caravaggio, used chiaroscuro to create greater physical depth and realism in his historical and religious works, as well as to focus the viewer’s attention on the most meaningfully emotional aspects of a painting. With Vermeer light becomes an essential aspect of a particular moment as it floods through a window and fills up a room. Light, in this case, brightens everything to a super-clarity and magnifies the transience of the moment, the way light would be used by photographers to apparently stop the flow of time and create an image which points right back at the evanescent.

Monet often showed light during the course of a day in relation to a landscape, thus revealing permanence and transience at the same time. The different intensities and hues of light represented the passage of time over something relatively unchanging. The surging and waning light in relation to haystacks or water lilies became significant as an ever-changing beauty that emanated from one thing during the course of a day. Monet wrote: “For me, a landscape does not exist in its own right, since its appearance changes at every moment; but the surrounding atmosphere brings it to life - the light and the air which vary continually.” Through Monet, light offered a beauty through impermanence. It rendered what had been considered permanent impermanent in the name of beauty.

But with Nakagami, light no longer plays a subservient role to things; light assumes its heroic proportions. It does not merely illuminate or aid in one’s focus or reveal the fleeting nature of life. His work invites us to think about the attributes of light that have made it such a potent symbol throughout the ages. He creates structures of light and darkness, like pillars, that do not literally exist but reveal a grandiose moment of possible transition. One implication is that light and darkness are, perhaps, the two primary components needed to create a language of spiritual and humane development. Maybe they were the first symbols created and used when we realized we needed a language inside language, a language comprised of symbols from the outside world to represent aspects of our inner world and inner growth.

The ancient religion of Zoroastrianism, after all, was based around the battle between light and darkness, good and evil. Hell, for Milton’s Satan, was a darkness visible: “…he views / The dismal situation waste and wild. / A dungeon horrible, on all sides round, / As one great furnace flamed; yet from those flames / No light: but rather darkness visible / Served only to discover sights of woe…” One of Martin Luther King Jr.’s most famous quotes is, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.”

Nakagami’s work is an interesting reconnection with nature because he is rejoining with nature as a source or tool of spiritual insight and self-understanding. Light and contrasting darkness are revealed as something that compels you to recognize a parallel within your own inner experience. His work hearkens back to the time before cities when people sought out ‘sacred’ places based on salient geological features and looked for relationships within nature that could mirror the unique human experience of self-growth toward the more humane qualities required of us. Unlike other creatures, after birth we were invited to pursue a type of inner growth toward pro-social and altruistic goals or to retain our more bestial characteristics. We created a new relationship to nature whereby we drew our symbols from it to aid in this growth. As well as a source of sustenance, nature also provided a language for us to understand our inner lives and a way to a light inside.

Nakagami recognizes a dual vision in which nature sustains us physically, and provides for our health, but also gives us the symbolic keys we need to develop further. It is nature as both a physical and spiritual sustainer. It provides examples of the sacred for us to follow, and he provides a corresponding type of transcendent experience on his canvas for the viewer. The light in his paintings cannot just be ‘conceptualized’ as ‘the truth.’ We see a process in the outer world that mirrors one in our inner lives and which remains ineffable and forces us to understand what truth is vis a vis deception. Is the light dispersing the clouds of darkness? Is it illuminating the clouds so that we see our own inner ‘dark-matter’?

Nature is very generous with its imagery. It invites us to create fantastical figures from it, if that provides us with a super-enriched inner language. But Nakagami does not choose how his forms will develop. He allows them to develop in a “non-gestural” manner. Nakagami does not use tube paints nor brushes. He uses a mixture of water-based pigments including glue, ink and acrylics. He also uses mica and other natural materials. To use a brush and to guide the process of development of an image would be to rely on the human will to work toward some goal or pre-established concept.

The more one relies on the human will, the less receptive one becomes to what can be revealed or what one can learn. So Nakagami relies on the properties of the materials he uses and the processes of gravity and aging to create his images. In his paintings we get a light made from, basically, minerals of the earth. The forms that are assumed are forms that develop from the application of the materials directly to the canvas followed by the patience which allows forms and relationships between light and dark to develop. Time and weathering affect the dark and light areas differently. This is light we have not seen, this is light of minerals and glue and gravity and time.

Nakagami has created a type of myth of unreflected light: light as if it could stand alone, reveal itself in its beneficent effect, independent of objects which usually show its existence, pillar-like, creating a bathing, purging and delivering ambience. It is not light attached to a specific time or place. It is light which to us is eternal, which naturally and convincingly and effectively reveals darkness so that the darkness made visible to us can be rejected.

As Nakigami is often considered a ‘Nihonga’ artist – someone who deliberately hearkens back to a non-western, more purely Japanese style – we can see he strives to reveal ‘essences’ and not outer appearances. He reveals a basic relationship between light and dark without using human effort and by allowing the artistic materials themselves to interact and create a process.

Is he painting light as a concept? Perhaps he is painting what we tend to do to light through cognition and memory and desire to make it more meaningful to ourselves. This is not natural light in a natural environment but light created through natural means. The darkness is not an absence of light, but an actual type of frothy goo, sometimes columns of frothy goo, that is illuminated and challenged.

Like any great work of abstraction, these paintings resonate with you and do not encourage an articulation of any statements or principles; they encourage an awareness or recognition. They encourage you to recall how you have allowed light to disperse darkness within you or how you can allow the light to drive out the darkness. How you, perhaps, will recognize the deception of doing the right thing for the wrong reason, or how you followed the wrong road into a dark wilderness before your awakening and escape back to life and the light.