Desire for Magic: Patrick Nagatani 1978-2008
Published by the University of New Mexico Art Museum, 2010
Reviewed by Katherine Ware
This generously illustrated volume accompanies a survey exhibition at the University of New Mexico Art Museum, organized by Michele M. Penhall. Filled with beautiful reproductions of Nagatani’s work, the book is the first to present images from across the artist’s career, richly demonstrating his innovative approach to photography, along with his versatility, humor, tenderness, and wry social commentary.
Hearteningly, the volume breaks with the biographical forced march of most retrospective monographs. It is organized around seven mature bodies of work made over a period of three decades, coinciding with Nagatani’s teaching career at the University of New Mexico. Each series is discussed in a discrete essay followed by a selection of images. These close and personalized readings of each group offer the reader manageable chunks of reflection and insight that don’t overwhelm the pictures they are meant to illuminate.
The benefit of a variety of informed perspectives is offered at the expense of a single, overarching voice that traces the elaborate web of interconnections across Nagatani’s creative output. In her introduction, Penhall refers to the leitmotif of the circle, which recurs in Nagatani’s work and is prominent in the book’s design, suggesting it as a model for approaching the images in a non-linear manner. Along with the title of the book (borrowed from a 2007 piece by the artist), this device sets the tone for a tour of Nagatani’s creative life that is more magic carpet ride rather than archeological excavation. Readers are put on notice that they are active participants in enjoying and interpreting the work rather than recipients of a resolved and revealed truth.
Additional resources such as a chronology, appendices, and a comprehensive bibliography and exhibition history make this an indispensable reference book. Unfortunately, the book’s zealous graphic design renders some of these tools almost unusable. While it seems clear that the design was meant to convey the vibrancy of the artist’s work and his interest in graphics and appropriation, the elaborate charts, unnecessary gate folds, and use of different type sizes across the essays is distracting.
The book opens with eight images from 1976-77, a period outside the scope of the book, when Nagatani began to concentrate on photography as his medium. He subsequently enrolled as a master’s student at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), a catalytic aspect of his development that is not explored in the texts. A longtime resident of Los Angeles and already in his thirties when he completed his M.F.A in 1980, Nagatani brought to the program his skills as a graphic designer, a photographer, and a post-war, pop-culture consumer of movies, advertising, magazines, and cartoons. At UCLA, he joined up with a small band of mavericks intent on engaging with contemporary life while redefining the boundaries of photography. From this creative maelstrom, Nagatani the artist emerged with his purposeful use of color, propensity toward theatricality, embedded cultural references, humor and outlandishness, and his nuanced exploration of identity.
For anyone who imagines he knows Nagatani’s work, and especially for anyone who doesn’t, the book is filled with delights and discoveries and offers a much-needed opportunity to examine the artist’s fanciful, astute, and historically grounded work to date. There is a lot to think about here, all to be reconsidered in light of whatever Nagatani does next.
Katherine Ware is the curator of photography at the New Mexico Museum of Art
The book is available at the UNM Art Museum and is distributed by UNM Press 1-800-249-7737