Tom Nakashima's immense, monolithic paintings project a curious duality: lyric simplicity, recalling Japanese sumi drawing, and iconic symbolism, defined in thick, tactile surfaces evocative of chiseled stone. Constructed as triptychs or diptychs, the paneled images of giant fish, faceless female figures and strong vertical lines entwined with snakes or juxtaposed with concentric circular patterns combine to form a nearly sculptural fac,ade -- something one might stumble upon a hundred years hence in a temple to the Bomb. The dichotomy of the artist's ethnic background, Japanese on his father's side, German-Irish on his mother's, is implicit in his work, and lends his paintings a universality rarely encountered in modern Expressionism.
"The fish I use so much is a salmon, which has always seemed to me to be a tragic figure," he says. "It fights its way upstream to mate, beating itself to death on the rocks. Its head turns red. It's a big, powerful fish.
"I paint the female figure because . . . Well, if I was a woman, I'd paint the male figure. She's a symbol of fertility . . . and humanity. In the first female figure I did her face got destroyed -- I guess because of the Bomb . . ."
Nakashima is standing before a huge painting titled "Beauty With Karmic Fish Awaits the Western Sunrise." The left half is occupied by a great white target, inscribed around its perimeter with J. Robert Oppenheimer's quotation from the Bhagavad-Gita, after Alamogordo, N.M.: " . . . I am become death, the shatterer of worlds."
"There is an Islamic text that talks about 'The Day of the Arrow,' " says Nakashima. "It is an apocalyptic reference -- the day the sun rises in the West instead of the East. In some of my paintings I've used a hunting arrow. In this one the sun is rising in the West."
Nakashima hardly looks his 42 years. For a man who traces his lineage to a great-grandfather who was a samurai swordsman, he is soft-spoken, unassuming. He has graduate degrees from the University of Notre Dame and Loras College, and has pursued his craft through many changes in the '60s and '70s.
"Before I came to Washington I was painting nonobjective images, strongly influenced by the New York school," Nakashima says. "When I arrived here I became increasingly aware of the impact of politics on the world -- I even used to go up to the Senate and listen. Then for a while I was doing pattern work, using patterns I think of as reminiscent of Arp or Matisse, and some based on Japanese characters.
"I was painting rather reductive work during Vietnam, with no way to comment on how I felt that way, so I used to comment in my writing. The '60s and '70s produced a rebellion in the arts, but it wasn't a rebellion against the war or whatever. It was a rebellion against an artistic style. Now I've just gotten to the point where I think the artist should be making some kind of visual statement. He should be aware of what's going on outside of the gallery walls. I am concerned about making art that is beautiful, but I want to make a statement."
Like that of many other contemporary artists, Nakashima's work expresses his concern about nuclear politics in such a way as to leave no doubt about its purpose. The verticality in his paintings -- enhanced by their triptych structure -- is central to their impact.
"My attitudes about using verticals go back to Barnett Newman and Greenberg and Stella -- that preoccupation with the idea of field repetition. Newman was very influential in my work. One of the things I thought was interesting about him was that he didn't consider himself a color-field painter. He considered himself an Expressionist.
"I've always admired the Japanese idea of taking things that are already done and using them, so I employ a lot of influences in my work. The circular pattern for the ground-zero image was inspired by Jasper Johns, another favorite of mine. I'd always wanted to do a target, but I could never find a reason to. But when I started the ground-zero idea, it was the perfect thing to integrate with my pattern direction -- the perfect excuse given the context of the painting."
Nakashima shows with the Henri Gallery in Washington, and this month he received an Individual Artist's Grant of $2,500 from the D.C. Commission on Arts and Humanities. He also teaches painting at Catholic University, and feels that he gets as much out of the process as his students.
"Teaching keeps me liberal," he says, laughing. "It keeps me in tune with a lot of other ideas. If I just got stuck with my own ideas, I'd be making pretty boring paintings. Those painters that tend to maintain one style over a really long period of time are boring to me. Since I've been painting professionally, I've made about four major shifts. They all relate. Right now I've decided to reread some classic literature -- like 'Moby Dick.' Assuming most of the great classics deal with universal themes -- war and peace, et cetera -- I want to see what I can get from them into my work.
"If your dominant interest is political, there are a lot better things to do besides painting -- in fact, art is not one of them. But art is one of the things you can do to effect change. I think it is the duty of every person -- whatever field they're in -- to in some way keep a high degree of awareness of the problems that humanity faces."