Portland-based artist and photographer Ricardo Nagaoka’s debut solo exhibition at Melanie Flood Projects, “at last, I see you,” features new work that challenges notions of the domestic and the masculine. Drawing from his own Asian male identity and heritage, Nagaoka confronts a narrative of existing within a set of American ideals that predominantly favor a white, heteronormative version of culture. “At last, I see you” stands as an ode to reclamation – to be seen is to be held and by way of these images, Nagaoka holds space for himself and his subjects alike.
Shot throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the impetus for this project was the artist’s deep introspection in processing expectations both personally and in the larger social context. As the show’s curator, Yaelle S. Amir writes in the exhibition’s introductory text:
“To fully understand this body of work, we must recognize the unique history of marginalization and racist representations of Asian males since the early nineteenth century in the U.S. The first significant influx of immigrants from Asia began in the mid-1800s, with laborers arriving from China, Japan, the Philippines, Korea, and India to work in railroad construction, on plantations, and as part of the California Gold Rush, among other jobs. Soon after, the U.S. government began passing restrictive laws targeting this population…This institutional persecution and rise of xenophobic sentiments towards Asian immigrants were further reinforced by a racist, global cultural campaign that saw the rise of the image of the ‘Yellow Peril’. This imagery appeared in media from the mid to late 1900s and depicted Eastern and South Asians as belligerent caricatures who pose an existential threat to the Western world…”
This long-standing tradition of immigrants chasing the impossibility of an American Dream, only to arrive in a country which endlessly persecutes, gatekeeps and threatens their livelihood, has been written into the very fabric of (white) American (oppressive) culture.
In an effort to challenge conventional understandings of gender and domestic roles, Nagaoka and his subjects shift the narrative by taking control of their lived experience. In multiple dichotomies of tense versus relaxed or of effeminate versus brawny, Nagaoka stretches the possible interpretations of these works. We recognize the strength in the taut muscle of the bicep in Oscar and the physicality of the figures seeming to wrestle on the carpeted floor in Choke (Bernardo & Will). The images first suggest a brute force and virility, but there is an underlying tenderness in Oscar, clad in a cheetah print tank top, flexing one arm, while gingerly holding the other to their chest with an open palm. In observing the faces of Bernardo and Will as they kneel entangled, no facet of their expression seems to portray a mean spirit or an aggression. Choke gives way to another understanding of their relationship, and we can begin to see the gentle, almost caressing, touch in the pose.
The artist shares with me that he “come[s] from two very patriarchal cultures—Latino and Japanese—which in recent years [he’s] really begun to connect the dots as to how that’s affected [him] and perceptions of masculinity as a whole.” Considering how intimacy is often a gift that is reciprocated, not a state merely based on a physical closeness, Nagaoka harnesses a vulnerable synergy in these photographs. He does so by way of stature, setting and emotion to generate and encourage new forms of power within historically gendered narratives.
In Justin, the sitter stands on their nonchalantly unmade bed, with one ankle propped in front the other and hands clasped together loosely. A delicate bracelet dangles from one wrist. They lean their head back against the wall in a way that implies effortlessness. They’re surrounded by quotidian domestic scenes: the window slightly ajar to let in a cool breeze; a half burned candle resting on a shelf next to a stuffed animal; personal cosmetics, packs of cigarettes, and other memorabilia gracing the shelves. The entire scene radiates an ease, both in its execution and presentation. The subject, Justin, wears a long dress prominently featuring Asian landscape imagery, characters and a female form in traditional wear. The dress feels an intentional mirroring between Justin and the feminine figure – presenting the stereotypical feminized clothing as malleable and not subject to any preconceived norms.
The express choice by Nagaoka to capture his male and non-binary friends, relatives, and strangers-turned-acquaintances in their home settings sets a casual yet powerful intimate undertone for the pieces. In this domain, those having their image taken are freely encouraged to shed any imposed layers and lay bare exactly how they would like to be perceived.
While Justin is clothed, many of the portraits feature the individuals in a nude or semi-nude state, shedding an additional layer of masculine masking. As much as clothing is an impactful mode of personal expression, the lack thereof allows for another form of vulnerability to blossom. Joe and Sunny are both pictured reclining backward onto sofas, presumably in the welcome comfort of their living rooms. Sunny is one of only three images in the exhibition shown in color. The sitter leans atop a deep burgundy couch, their hands resting peacefully on their bare abdomen with a few tattoos scattered and loosely decipherable on their body. The stark,deep red of the chaise further accentuates the shadows visible in the image, as if we along with the subject are comfortably sinking into the couch. This colorplay also adds a cheeky touch in clashing with the neon yellow painted on Sunny’s fingernails, another element that subtly breaks down gendered norms of presentation. Here, Sunny’s head is tipped back and their eyes are closed in repose. They could be briefly resting, or they could be in a deep slumber; in either scenario, they are undoubtedly in a state of complete unfettered tranquility.
The contempt and hostility of the Trump presidency towards China, amidst pandemic exhaustion and the recent Stop Asian Hate efforts of 2021, contribute yet another layer to the artist’s desire in disrupting this socialized cycle of hateful dominance and masculinity.
In its entirety, the collection of photographs on display come together to softly engage the senses, making for a truly somatic experience of the work. As each of these images are displayed so openly exposed and raw in their subject matter, gallery goers become inextricably drawn to the characters.
We can feel the hand of Brit in Corazón Mio (Brit) move atop their chest to grip at their heart in a moment of intensity as they turn back and away from the camera. As Joe lounges, their long hair gathered behind them and onto the armrest of the sofa, they bring two fingers to their lips pensively, or as if to taste something.
Sunday (Papá) and Gabriel are the only two portraits shot in a natural setting, and are two of the three images displayed in color. Papá, presumed to be the artist’s own father, stretches in the sunlight and is photographed through the branch of a palm tree. Gabriel in turn leans against the trunk of a large tree, their eyes also closed and tipped to the sun, as one arm crosses their body to grip their shoulder and one leg is propped up against the base of the tree. The inclusion of color for these portraits lends another overlay of realism here – in both, viewers can imagine the rustle of leaves, the sound of birds chirping in the air, and any number of other natural noises making up the scenes.
Nagaoka considers photography to require a mutual understanding of individualities; the photographer sets the framing of the created world but that process would not exist without an intimate communion between both parties. They reveal the connections made over the last three years. They read as a revelation, an active choice against concealment and towards representation. Identifying in such a material and visceral way with the individuals in these photographs only accentuates the intention behind works – to be seen, acknowledged, and honestly portrayed.
Melanie Flood Projects is located at 420 SW Washington St, #301. The gallery is open Friday-Saturday 12-5. “At last, I see you” is on view through July 25th, 2022. On Saturday July 9th, from 11am – 12pm Nagaoka and Amir will be in conversation in the gallery space, touching on the artist’s exhibition and his practice generally. On Saturday July 23rd, at 4pm, the gallery will host a closing event with an exhibition walk-through and discussion with Nagaoka.