There is something incredibly haunting about Lya Nagado‘s doll portraits, currently on display at the ICN gallery in Shoredich, London. I would even go so far as to use the word “freaky”. They remind me of those horror movies about dolls that come to life and kill you. And yet, I found them compelling. I couldn’t stop staring at their smooth skin and looking into their vacant eyes.
Lya Nagado was born in Brazil but is of Japanese heritage. She explained to me that Japanese is a passive language for her; she can understand but cannot respond. In her work, she explores the theme of her Japanese heritage through the eyes of an outsider. To me, her work is filled with a sense of emptiness, intimacy and privacy.
“Still Life” is Lya Nagado’s first solo exhibition. During the last decade, Lya’s interest in anthropomorphic portraiture has grown, and she has shifted from pop culture and street art, design and illustration, into drawing and painting. What I find particularly interesting about Lya’s portraits is the depth and unique tone. Much of this is achieved through the use of unusual materials such as gesso, vellum and earth pigments.
On Saturday I went along to the ICN gallery to hear the artist talk about gesso and making oil paints using earth pigments. I had not heard of gesso before, and was fascinated to learn how Lya “cooks” the ingredients (rabbit-skin glue and whitening) to make this binder, which is then painted onto wood. Each layer is carefully sanded down to make it smooth, and the final result is a hard, smooth, slightly shiny surface ready to be painted on. The surface is very solid, says Lya, but it is fragile and won’t stand heavy impact.
I found myself quite surprised to learn that Lya’s paintings contain rabbit skin, and it got me thinking about the ethics of art. As a pescetarian, I don’t think I could bring myself to use rabbit skin glue, so I asked Lya is there was a veggie alternative. She said that, although she had not tried it herself she thought GAC 100 might be an option. Having also had a bit of a Google, it seems there are alternatives out there if you don’t like the idea of using animal products in your art.
Lya also explained how to make oil paint using earth pigments and linseed oil. It’s a lengthy, time consuming process, and she said she would not do it if she were using large canvases, as you can only make a very small amount at a time. As with making gesso, Lya said that making oil paint was a bit like cooking – this certainly does look like chocolate, doesn’t it?
The images portrayed in Lya’s work are not real human babies; they are dolls, and yet dolls which have been given a certain amount of life-like qualities. Japanese dolls are often disturbingly realistic in this way, with incredible details and moving parts. Interestingly, traditional Japanese dolls were made from carved wood, and their shining white skin was made with a lacquer called gofun. Gofun, as it happens, is pretty much the same thing as gesso, made from ground oyster shells and glue.
Looking at the faces of the dolls in the picture above, can’t you see the uncanny resemblance between these traditional toys and Lya’s work? As I said: freaky, but compelling.
Here’s what the artist, Lya Nagado, has to say about her work:
The body of personal choices that I have built in the course of my painting process represents, consciously or unconsciously, an attempt to enact the association between the territories of history and imagination that we all inhabit, akin to the universal symbolism of playing with dolls itself. Similarly, the title “Still Life” is a reference to the historical theme of painting inert objects, posing the question of life within apparently inanimate forms, in conjunction with the idea of cycle of life and rebirth.
As a subject, dolls can symbolise aspects of our primordial nature in the very core of the construction of the self. They are everyday objects that readily evoke childhood memories, a powerful sense of personal and family history and nostalgia for beauty and purity. At the other end of the spectrum, dolls can also be somewhat a source of anxiety, as empty vessels that hold the fear of the uncanny and the supernatural. Above all, they recall the potential of hosting a life force that connects us with the archetypal world.
The philosopher Giorgio Agamben suggests the hypothesis that all play (and games and toys) descends from what once belonged to the realm of sacred, but somehow had lost its meaning as the modern world has become more secular. In Japan,toys (Omocha), as a taxonomical genre, have far trespassed the realms of childhood: “Indeed, most traditional toys originally were, and to some degree continue to be, talismans and amulets for the blessing and protection of the holder, tokens of and material links with certain holy places and their tutelary deities.”. For the Japanese, traditional dolls have an even more profound quality of relics, as the embodiment of beliefs that are passed from generation to generation.
As an artist, the process of making paints from pure pigments and the preparation of supports from organic raw materials are ways to connect with my own work on a more ancient level. The transformation of matter from its primordial state invites one to a meditation on one’s own essence and origins, echoing the nakedness of being, which traverses time and borders. The historicity of materials in my practice, such as gesso, vellum,and earth pigments, performs as a medium to our common cultural memory. On these grounds, the images emerge gradually, through many transparent coats of pensive colours, witness to the passage of time and the superimposing of ideas.
The questions that “Still Life” poses in my work are consequently about how traditions can survive, fade or transform. This series of paintings look at fragments of rituals that are somewhat in dissonance with their original meaning. Through the agency of combining heritage and culture, we are constantly incorporating changes in the portrayal of the contemporary. However, concealed within these layers, we might just be able to see a glimpse of a deeper underlying nature.
 Agamben, Giorgio, Infancy and History: On the Destruction of Experience, translated by Liz Heron, Verso 2007
 Kyburz, Josef A. “Omocha: Things to Play (Or Not to Play)” in Asian Folklore Studies, Vol. 53, No.1, 1994, pp.1-28
 Gesso is a fluid white coating that has been used for more than 3000 years, composed of a mineral whitening mixed with animal glue, applied over hard smooth surfaces such as wood. Coeval with gesso, vellum is a surface made of animal skin that has been dried, cleaned, dehaired and scraped. Earth pigments are naturally occurring minerals, mainly iron oxides, used since prehistoric times.
And a message from the Curator, Hisami Omori:
Lya Nagado’s pieces resemble the earlier Flemish school of classical art which is utilized in Jan van Eyck’s precise techniques and material. Like making a ﬁlm, there are many layers of thin paint on the wood block, which is a classical technique used to express heavy density and tender light in the texture while engraving her sensitive movement of lines onto the surface of the painting. Instead of calling it a drawing, the traces of paint overlapping each other are painted with passion, and are collectively forming a shape. The motifs on the surface are all child-like, while being almost like a doll and also somewhat neutral (in sexuality). Moreover, when we are observing the piece, it feels as though we have walked into a special private dimension, which is most likely triggered by the doll motifs in her work.
Dolls are given life with the addition of the face (eyes, eyebrows, mouth, hair, expression etc.), clothing, hands, and foot, and as long as these elements exist, it will become an item even if it is to be hollow. Therefore, a doll is a collection of details. Details are a quality present with the Buddha statue, and a characteristic common in the Japanese art of the sculpture. For the case of Hans Bellmer, his Western physical symbols have sculptural meaning. Bellmer’s ball-jointed doll has a body that works
like a script but has the mechanism to divide and disassemble when the ball-joints are altered, and this replaces the piece with a new poetic context. The most significant difference between a statue and a doll is that where a statue must have meaning, the doll does not. On the other hand, director Mamoru Oshii mentions that “a doll removes vague cognition from the human, and becomes the ideal physical icon.” In the movie “Innocence”, Mamoru analyses the similarities between animation and doll creation, and questions “why humans are attracted to dolls” and “what others are to a human being”. Conclusively, if the quality of a doll rests in its feeling of privacy, sharing of time (with the owner), and lack of meaning (emptiness), then the inquiries questioned in Lya’s work are in the same framework.
Lya’s “Still Life” can be perceived as her personal idea based on her faint sense of Japanese aesthetics from her background, and homesickness she felt during her youth. Ultimately, she views the doll as an entity of its own and she tries to discover life using her fresh sensibility, while questioning the big theme of identity.
“Still Life” by Lya Nagado is on at the ICN gallery until 23rd June. There will also be a special guided tour of the exhibition by the artist on Thursday 7th June at 7pm. For more information, please visit the ICN gallery website or Lya Nagado‘s website or Facebook.