Naoki Tomita’s paintings are densely luscious, and his control of color and paint is strikingly apparent. Working from photographs — collected imagery and his own photography — realism and representation are central to his practice. However, the thickness of paint allows for this photographic precision to become blurred into figurative abstraction and impressionistic painting. Tomita’s strokes create texture in the work; a rippling of color and paint across the canvas that raises the piece from a flattened image into something that looks and feels alive. The thick paint strokes pick up light and cast their own shadows, making the materiality of his work a subject in its own right. Space is a central theme in his work — from the urban street scapes to facades of empty stores or images of empty apartments found through real estate sites. In these works, the figure is absent. A messenger bag sits in the corner of an empty apartment, a car waits at a stop light, and lights gleam from buildings, restaurants, and stores alive with activity, but the focus is upon the absence and emptiness of these environments. Hope is a central theme in Tomita’s work. While his paintings focus on a perceived absence or loss, his work shifts attention onto the potential for something new, intending these subjects as moments of beginning rather than decided fate.
Naoki Tomita was born in the Ibaraki prefecture, Japan in 1983. He graduated with a degree in Fine and Applied Arts from the Kyoto University of Art and Design in 2012, and earned his MFA in oil painting at Tokyo University of Arts in 2015. He received the Founder’s Award from the Contemporary Art Foundation in 2015 and was Aritst in Residence in Fall 2017 at 1335 in Manila, Phillipines. He has participated in numerous solo and group exhibitions in Tokyo, Kyoto, Seoul, and Hong Kong. Most recently, Tomita had a solo show suburban boy at Maho Kubota Gallery (Tokyo, 2016) and is looking forward to a solo exhibition in December 2018 at the Tsunagi Art Museum in Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan.
Very special thanks to Sabrina Horak for acting as translator during our Skype interview.
What is your background in art? How did you first get interested in painting?
I started painting when I was a kid, but back then I didn’t particularly think that I wanted to be an artist. As a teenager, I was involved in some bad things -- I was in a street gang and I have a lot of bad memories from this time. After leaving that situation, I wanted to be a Japanese comedian, like a TV comic or something, and I tried to do that for a few years. But when i was 20, I met my art teacher from junior high school again. He made me remember my love for art which made me start making art again and then ultimately go study it at university.
What were your early paintings like and how have you developed your practice into your current body of work?
In terms of themes, I wasn’t making paintings that were about society or social issues at first. When I became a university student I first started thinking about what my art should be about and what imagery I wanted to paint. I started thinking about my time as a gang member, which made me think about what things I wanted to tell people with my art. This has allowed me to develop the current themes in my work.
Can you talk more about the ‘No Job’ series -- where are you sourcing the images from, who the people are, and how you are thinking about the work as a series?
The imagery comes from magazines, primarily magazines about street fashion and snapshots of people on the street. In the magazines, they don’t just show a picture, but they also include information about the person like their occupation. Some of the people are university students or have other jobs, but then some of the images just say ‘unemployed’. I’m selecting the images that have that ‘unemployed’ label, so it’s images from the magazine. When you walk down the street and look at people, you have no idea anything about their lives or whether they’re unemployed or not, but in the fashion magazine it’s stated very clearly and shows a reality of people in Japan. In these street snapshots in the magazines, it’s just regular people on the street. They might be dressed in expensive or stylish clothes, but looking at them you might never know anything about their reality and never know that they are unemployed. I find that really interesting.
How are you approaching this series and thinking about unemployment as a social issue?
There are people who think of unemployment as their status symbol. Unemployment isn’t necessarily a good thing, but it also isn’t a bad thing. I think that unemployment can be seen as two different things. Either you just lost your job or really need money so it is something that is negative, or it can also be something positive because it can be the beginning of something new.
In Japan seven years ago there was a catastrophe in Fukushima where there was a tsunami and an earthquake. In this area, everything was destroyed and nothing was left. This was a horrible thing, but I don’t see it as the end of this area. I see it as the beginning of something new and as hopeful. I think that this can be the same for a person too -- moments can be catastrophic, but they are also the beginning for new things and positive changes.
Can you talk about your application of paint, which is thick and every mark is really visible? How are you thinking about painting materially?
I started using paint in this particular way when I started the ‘No Job’ series, which was around the same time as the catastrophe in Fukushima happened. In my painting process, when I start painting the first layer is actually very thin. But through the process of painting and correcting, the paint layers get thicker and thicker, step by step. It’s not my ultimate goal to make works with such thick paint and it’s not my intention actually, it just naturally develops that way and becomes thicker and thicker as a result of my process.
Can you talk about your source imagery beyond the ‘No Job’ series? I know you use a lot of your own photographs -- what is the balance between your photographs and external sources?
It depends on the series of work. When it’s the city landscapes, almost all of those images are photographed by myself. I also have a series where I paint empty apartments, shops, or buildings. I take those original images from the Internet. Usually I go to real estate companies’ websites, and I pull the images of empty spaces from there.
Can you talk more about these two series? Why are you interested in the empty apartments, and also what attracts you to the images of the urban landscapes?
I like the theme of a state of zero, or nothingness. Like with the ‘No Job’ series, and also like I said with Fukushima, I think about the state of zero as a moment for new hope. It’s a state of death, a state of nothingness, but after that moment something new is about to happen and will happen.
With the city landscapes, the city that I live in right now is changing constantly in small steps, which is another parallel to my painting process where I start with thin paint and it changes and builds up over time.
What is your work process like creating a piece?
I start with the photo of the image printed out. I work from that image in my hand and scale the image by hand onto the canvas. It’s totally analog -- I freehand the scaling with no projector. Because I work from the photos, the colors are already decided before I start to paint. I start with a palette and work from there, layering the paint as I go. I’ve worked this way for about ten years, since I was an undergrad student. Depending on the size, the pieces take varied amounts of time. The ‘No Job’ series is actually very small, so those take one or two days to complete. My larger works take one and a half to two months to finish. The fact that it takes a long time to finish the work is actually a struggle. I want to paint faster.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on two main series’ right now -- the series with the open and empty apartments is a new thing. I want to paint more different themes, but I want to continue with focusing on the themes of society. This ‘No Job’ series is about that, and since society is constantly changing, I think that I will find new imagery and ideas to work with. A new series I’ve recently started is focused on the city of Tokyo, and I’ve started painting parking lots since last year.
What is your studio practice like?
It really depends on the day. If there are close deadlines or exhibitions, I work 24 hours a day, and a lot at night. But if there’s no particular deadline or exhibition, I don’t work that many hours a day. I don’t have the same routine everyday.
What artists have influenced you throughout your art career -- who are you looking at, how have you been developing your work? How are you thinking about your work in relation to contemporary artists and art history?
When I was an undergraduate student, my biggest influence were my teachers at my university in Kyoto. Three teachers -- Kohei Nawa, Tatsuo Miyajima, and Noboru Tsubaki were particularly influential. And none of them actually were painters. The themes of their works are very focused on social problems. So the themes of my work are influeced by those teachers. My painting technique was influenced by Gogh and other impressionist painter.
Are you thinking about humor within your works?
I’m still very interested in Japanese comedy. I think that the composition of art and comedy are very similar, both of them are about entertaining and engaging with a viewer or spectator. For me, humor and laughing are not the same. I don’t want to show people anything negative when they look at my art. I think that comedy and humor is a way of turning something that people think is negative into a beautiful painting that I can use show people an alternate perspective of reality, where there is a beautiful painting, but the background is something that’s actually sad.
How do you approach photography as a part of your practice? Are you taking a lot of photos and going back and sifting through them, are you looking for specific imagery and taking deliberate photos?
I take a lot of pictures and then I choose the images for my paintings, and I just use my iPhone camera.
When you’re in your studio how do you work best? Do you listen to music or podcasts?
I listen to music and podcasts but not all the time. Sometimes I prefer a quiet situation. Also it helps me make art when I'm eating chocolate (laughs)