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UBUI (First Time) by Shinji Nakaba

Exhibition  /  06 Nov 2021  -  05 Dec 2021
Published: 01.11.2021
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Intro
Gallery Loupe is proud to present a solo exhibition of work by Shinji Nakaba. Nakaba believes all materials to be of equal value for jewelry-making, and treats them with the same reverence, whether precious metals and gemstones or discarded aluminum beer cans and plastic water bottles. The bulk of his practice, however, centers on glyptic art, a sculpting technique specific to jewelry.

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Shinji Nakaba
Shinji Nakaba entered jewelry along a circuitous path. Born in Kanagawa, Japan in 1950, he was first a fashion designer and dressmaker, hairstylist, shoemaker, and graphic designer. He began making jewelry in 1974, after taking a basic course at Hiko Mizuno College of Jewelry in Tokyo. 

Nakaba believes all materials to be of equal value for jewelry-making, and treats them with the same reverence, whether precious metals and gemstones or discarded aluminum beer cans and plastic water bottles. The bulk of his practice, however, centers on glyptic art, a sculpting technique specific to jewelry. Nakaba carves gemstones, seashells, and pearls using this ancient process. Nonetheless, his necklaces, brooches, and rings look anything but traditional, even though the realistic images are rendered with utmost precision. Visages emerge at precipitous angles, tensely engaged with other faces or figures; lone female breasts or male genitalia are located front and center; pearls are transformed into eerie skulls or disembodied heads.

Throughout his lengthy career, Nakaba has been the subject of numerous solo exhibitions and been included in many group shows in Japan, the USA, the UK, France, Switzerland, Argentina, and Mexico. In 2020, he was selected for Schmuck in Munich. His work is represented in several public collections. Among them are the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Quebec; Espace Solidor, Cagnes-sur-Mer, France, National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo; and Die Neue Sammlung, Munich. 


Disembodied Meaning: The Jewelry of Shinji Nakaba
by Toni Greenbaum

Shinji Nakaba (born 1950) is a contemporary Japanese jeweler who renders naturalistic, albeit ambiguous, images in minerals, shell, pearls, and steel, as well as upcycled aluminum cans and plastic bottles. When one views his labor-intensive works, reminiscent of Greek sculpture, Carl Fabergé, or Emil Gallé, it is astonishing to learn that Nakaba is essentially self-taught, except for a basic course at Hiko Mizuno College of Jewelry in Tokyo, which he attended in 1974. An avowed “hippie” in his youth, Nakaba eschewed formal education, preferring instead to dabble in dress- and shoe-making, clothing design, and even hairstyling. He came to jewelry through his love for historical styles—ancient Greek, Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, and Art Nouveau—studying them voraciously in museums around the world, at antique shops, and in books.

I’ve known Nakaba personally since 2001, when he was stranded in New York City immediately following the attack on the World Trade Center. I was working at Julie: Artisans’ Gallery on Madison Avenue at the time, and he walked in wearing a ring that riveted me. It was cast in silver, which had been gold-plated, and was composed of four contiguous female body parts—head, torso, chest, and derriere—that encircled his finger. I asked him who made it, and since his English was limited and I don’t speak Japanese, I phoned a Japanese American artist to translate and was told that Nakaba had made it, himself, and that he was a jeweler specializing in glyptic art, a cameo-like technique that consists of hand sculpting organic substances, such as seashell and semi-precious stones. Nakaba recently informed me that the wax model for that ring was taken from versions he had previously carved in rock crystal. Arthur C. Danto (1924-2013), a philosopher, writer, and educator, who focused on aesthetics, defined art as embodied meaning. I consider Shinji Nakaba’s art disembodied meaning; and the vermeil “broken body ring” is a perfect example, as are his sculpted seashell torso and breast rings, foot brooch, and carved pearl pendants depicting portions of the human anatomy.

The concept of beauty is Nakaba’s guiding principle. Referring to it as “innocent beauty” he believes it has the potential for systemic redemption. He regards beauty as nothing less than a “guidepost for human survival,” essential for overcoming societal ills and capable of creating a “new order [and value system], which can be applied to other fields, lifestyles and industries.” He presents jewelry in an unconventional manner, by often engaging motifs associated with prurient pleasures. In addition to typical subjects, such as plants and flowers, he signals the unexpected through erotic imagery—a lone breast, buttock, or penis—carved with the utmost realism and then left plain, or mounted in gold or silver as a ring or brooch. Beauty, indeed, but an edgy beauty, full of surprises, some of them shocking, channeling both purity and decadence.

Clearly, Nakaba is no traditionalist, despite his reverence for the past. His aim is the modernization of historical traditions in order to interface with the present, along with the future. Pearls are arguably one of the most time-honored materials with which to make jewelry. Strung to form necklaces, or hung as earrings, they have been a standard of female adornment for millennia. Nonetheless, Nakaba—renegade that he is—has managed to subvert their conventionality by carving them into tiny truncated heads, eyes, fists, pudenda, and skulls. He gleefully turns these pristine gems into enigmatic objects, particularly the last, which he calls “fairy skulls.” He’s even stated that he believes pearls were “born to be carved into skulls,” perceiving the final format in their uneven contours. As to skulls’ association with death, Nakaba posits: “Making death a part of daily life leads to a better life….It is the artist’s mission to…blur the line between life and death, and coming from a heart without division or discrimination… innovations will be born.” His jewelry is like no other. You think you have it figured out, and then he throws you a curve in the form of a cranium, or a navel, a snake, or a finger. Exceedingly concerned about climate change, Nakaba wishes to use jewelry to promote the optimistic promise of a new age, one that celebrates what makes us human and prods us to coexist with nature.

Shinji Nakaba has a huge fan base (over 19,000 Instagram followers), and has been featured in exhibitions in the USA, as well as Europe—most recently Schmuck 2020—the UK, Argentina, and Mexico, along with myriad shows in Japan. His work is represented in numerous public collections, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Musée des beaux-arts, Quebec; Espace Solidor, Cagnes-sur-Mer; National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo; and Die Neue Sammlung, Munich.


Note: Quotes by Shinji Nakaba are taken from the following online interviews:
Makiko Akiyama, Klimt02, January 1, 2019.
Kenna McCafferty, Office, August 31, 2021.
Alyssa Shapiro (translated by Rika Noda),“The Hourglass,” Whisper Editions, April 7, 2016.
 
Exhibition poster.
Exhibition poster

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Shinji Nakaba. Brooch: How dare pearl!, 2019. Carved pearl, stainless steel.. 4 x 1.1 x 1.3 cm. Photo by: Shinji Nakaba. Shinji Nakaba
Brooch: How dare pearl!, 2019
Carved pearl, stainless steel.
4 x 1.1 x 1.3 cm
Photo by: Shinji Nakaba
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Shinji Nakaba. Set: Carved Body Parts jewelry, 2015. Carved shell (helmet shell), silver 925.. Photo by: Shinji Nakaba. Shinji Nakaba
Set: Carved Body Parts jewelry, 2015
Carved shell (helmet shell), silver 925.
Photo by: Shinji Nakaba
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Brooch by Shinji Nakaba, Recycled Aluminum Cans..
Brooch by Shinji Nakaba, Recycled Aluminum Cans.

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Works by Shinji Nakaba. .
Works by Shinji Nakaba.

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Shinji Nakaba in his workshop .
Shinji Nakaba in his workshop

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