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Heavy Petting

In today’s “porn by the pound” world, Tracy Nakayama’s artwork is a welcome return to a more natural way of viewing human sexuality. One can practically taste the Boone’s Farm and Kona bud as Nakayama’s multihued, single-ink couples fondle and explore one another in compositions that include ornate tapestries, feathers, babies and even animals. The cumulative effect of Nakayama’s feelin’-groovy sensibility recalls the immensity and innocence of the first time.

“It all stems from the idea of being comfortable with your body and the things that are around you and how all of those things are interpreted and become this really interesting juxtaposition,” says Nakayama, sitting with a strong dose of Turkish coffee in her Williamsburg, Brooklyn, loft. “It’s important there be elements that are awkward. Like having a baby next to two naked people and how some view that as totally crazy while others are like, ‘Wow, what a beautiful thing.’”

A self-described “hapa haole” (meaning half Caucasian and half Japanese), Nakayama grew up in Hawaii until she came to the mainland in ’92 at 17 to study printmaking at the California College of Arts & Crafts in Oakland. Faced with the reality that she couldn’t even land a job at Whole Foods after graduating, Nakayama bet heavily on her passion, went even deeper into student-loan hell and headed to the School of Visual Arts in New York City, receiving her MFA in 1998. Even more than grad school, however, it’s the experience of living in NYC that Nakayama credits with clarifying the intent of her work, although given its strong ’60s-and-’70s-era aesthetic, one more readily sees the evidence of a life born of the West Coast. In New York, broke and living alone fresh off a seven-year relationship, Nakayama began making work based on idealized versions of love and romance gleaned from old vacation brochures and cigarette ads. “Or even in contemporary ads where the guy’s shoving a greasy slice of pizza in the girl’s mouth, and it’s sort of erotic but also disgusting,” adds the artist.

Increasingly intrigued by how modern porntastic culture seemed to cater exclusively to a male point of view, Nakayama took her impromptu thesis one step further and began rendering male nudes based on photos out of Playgirl. The work, however, translated differently than she intended. “People thought it was completely homosexual or homoerotic. I’d show these nude men to female friends and they’d just giggle. They saw it as kitschy instead of sexy, when what I was trying to say was that sex was something natural, like eating or sleeping or breathing.”

To better hone in on her mission, Nakayama put women into the work, which opened up viewers’ interpretations. Tony Wight, director of Bodybuilder & Sportsman Gallery in Chicago and who works with Nakayama, says the change was immediately evident. “When I was first exposed to Tracy’s work, on one hand it seemed tinged with male homosexuality, and on the other with iconic symbols of romance. Tracy’s new work portrays heterosexual couples during moments of one-on-one sexual intimacy. Also, there are now fewer extraneous background elements, such as ships and sunsets. This more minimal setting helps her to create scenes of more profound intimacy.”

Although switching to couples felt instantly right to Nakayama, it also felt almost too personal. It wasn’t until two years ago, at her first solo show at Voges + Deisen in Frankfurt, that the artist’s reservations were blown wide open. “They were almost all young nude couples just about to kiss, and the reception I got in Europe helped me to see my work in an entirely different light. All these moms were holding their little kids up to my paintings, and it was nothing big. It was being viewed formally as figurative painting.”

Using Basingwerk paper, a dead stock ever since the only mill making it closed in France in 2000, and her own secret one-color ink, with which she creates an entire palette of shades, Nakayama attempts “to evoke a memory of a time that was pleasant; neither retro nor nostalgic, just a comfortable natural earth tone.” Nakayama also incorporates pencil work, both dark graphite and, more recently, colored (an effect she compares to that of a stylus used in printmaking), to capture the immediacy of a single moment. Lately, she’s added gold leaf to the mix as well.

The paintings are filled with intensely detailed work, several inches by several inches or several feet by several feet. “I like to go back and forth between the scales. One’s working with my arm, and the other’s crouched over with a brush, really noodling around and getting a little too insanely detailed. I take a little more time with the larger ones even though they require a lot less skill and attention to detail.”

Amy Smith Stewart, assistant curator/exhibition coordinator at New York’s PS 1 Contemporary Art Center, first saw Nakayama’s work featured in Zing magazine and was smitten by the urgent sensuality and soft, tender beauty. Says Smith Stewart: “The positions the couples are typically engaged in remind me of the illustrations found in the infamous Joy of Sex manual. Each work gives the viewer a chance to share a fleeting but triumphant moment epitomized by a simple need to fulfill a personal desire.”

Nakayama was selected to participate in PS 1’s Special Projects, a program designed to “reflect the extraordinary energy and variety of practices among young artists working in NYC and abroad,” according to Smith Stewart. Nakayama’s PS 1 show opens at the end of this month and runs through March.

With her erotically charged work getting an increasingly higher profile, Nakayama’s had to field some silly questions. “One woman, the first thing she asked was if I liked dildos,” Nakayama shrugs. “I’m looking around my apartment like, ‘There’s no signifiers anywhere. No dildos anyplace.’”

Of the sometimes-tittering reaction to Nakayama’s work, B&S’s Wight says: “It’s certainly reminiscent of ’70s porn stills and notions of free love, and it can be difficult to make distinctions between her work and some of the pornographic sources from which she draws her inspiration. But her work is a celebration of sexuality, particularly of female sexuality, that pornography often is not. Furthermore, the work is clearly done from the perspective of female heterosexual desire, a perspective that is typically absent from mainstream pornography. The men in Tracy’s work are typically engaged in tender and playful sex acts with the women in the work, who are also clearly enjoying themselves.”

Nakayama, who devours rock bios and confesses a deep interest in all things “Yoko Ono, Anita Pallenberg and women whose careers were overshadowed by men,” claims she doesn’t look too far ahead. But she says she’s becoming more interested in the cycle of life, the union of two people, birth and death. Not long ago, she completed a large-scale painting, Yogi Tree, which depicts nine leaves, each containing its own smaller piece. As Tracy describes it: “Kind of a textbook, not scientific but more personable, sweet and intimate.” Recently, Nakayama designed a T-shirt for the design-forward Japanese outfit United Bamboo and is finishing a scarf for them as well. She’s also been included in the last two issues of K48, Scott Hug’s critical-darling New York art zine.

Clearly, as her work indicates, Nakayama covets the laid-back life, love and friendship. “My artwork is so much about freedom. I just want to go live in a VW bus on the North Shore of Hawaii and have a hot surfer dude feed me sashimi,” she smiles, wistfully. “Instead I spend so much time alone in my studio crouched over my desk, it’s kind of a bummer.”

Tracy Nakayama’s “Free but Not Easy” continues through February 14 at Acuna-Hansen Gallery, 427 Bernard St., in Chinatown.