Preston Metcalf

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“Boxes in Terra Rose I,” oil and silver leaf on canvas, 2009 (courtesy of the artist)

Kenjilo Nanao, printmaker and painter, passed away on Monday. He was 83.

Born in Aomori, Japan, he came to San Francisco in 1960. He studied printmaking with Nathan Oliveira, married fellow artist Gail Chadell, and together they spent most of their lives in the Bay Area.

I became acquainted with Kenji’s work through my friend Kevin Simmers who studied printmaking with Nanao in the 70s. I have been a fan of his work ever since.

While I was in California two weeks ago we stopped by Kenji’s studio to see him. Frail and faltering, he spent time with us on the afternoon of April 29. Gail took him to the hospital that night. Two weeks later he was gone.

From the essay by art critic Charles Shere in the catalog for Kenji’s recent show at the Triton Museum in Santa Clara, “Pacific Paintings, 1986-2011″:

After nearly a lifetime of work these painting have attained a rare mastery. Thankfully, Kenjilo Nanao continues to paint, patiently following his muse, his eye, his hand, the evolving vision.

Their first element: transcendance. They are pacific paintings, serene yet energetic. Too often painters approaching these visions find the merely tranquil. There’s nothing soft or merely decorative about this work, though the surfaces are indeed beautiful, often even sumptuous. There’s much going on in and under those surfaces—gesture, memory, attentiveness, intelligence—revealing life, vitality, even power behind the beauty. Not behind it: informing it.

And from Preston Metcalf, curator at the Triton:

Seen in this sense we get a hint of Nanao’s exploration of the nature of humanity. We are not interruptions in the vast transcendent field beyond the physical, but we are all a part of it and so we are all connected and one.

Kenjilo Nano says he makes art to improve himself by the journey, rather than making art for art’s sake. Fortunately for us, by sharing the boon of his explorations, he improves us along the way.

Whether working on his prints or his paintings, Nanao had a master’s hand. The magisterial quietude of his work is undeniable. As Shere observed, “There is nothing more beautiful, in all its generous modesty than this mastery.”

This is the Irreplaceable: that which cannot be replicated or reproduced. Adieu Kenji. And thank you.

Photos from our last studio visit with Kenji:

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Kevin Simmers and Kenji

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Kevin and Kenji

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Kenji sitting beneath one of his luscious red paintings

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Ed Carrigan, Kevin and Gail Chadell Nanao

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Ed and Kevin

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Ed, Kevin and Kenji

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Works in progress in Kenji’s studio

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