Expression-wise, there’s nothing out of the ordinary about the eyes in Japanese artist Naoto Hattori’s recent portraits of young women. Sometimes they’re as large, all seeing, and innocent as anything you’d find in Japanese anime. Sometimes they’re sinister, black pinprick holes that mask or otherwise portend malicious intent. What are extraordinary are the heads and faces. They combine elements of Odilon Redon, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, and Day of the Dead iconography. The single eye that covers a cat’s face; faces constructed from unexpected organic shapes; a Cheshire Cat that emerges grinning from the top of an exploded head; and a skull. Even the ones that look normal either have henna-like markings on the scalp or else look like death portraits.
Though the works are sci-fi, alien and surreal, not to mention whimsical, peculiar, and odd, they’ve got gravitas and presence. They have authority because Hattori paints them in the realistic style of Renaissance portraits. They got awesome detail and perfect shading. Their proportions look like they’ve been plotted with Da Vinci’s Golden Mean. They emerge from their black backgrounds like something out of a dream or a nightmare.
Despite the heads that bristle with a Bretonian frisson, it’s the eyes that hold your gaze. They’re not just formal elements or physiological ornaments – elegant almond shapes, tinted irises, wispy lashes, and eye shadow. We come back to the eyes because they’re all we have in common with the sitters. They anchor our reading of each piece. We can’t identify with the subject of each piece but we can certainly watch them as they dream. We look at images of the dreamer and the dreams themselves; we’re riveted by eyes that continue to see even when they’re closed.
Naoto Hattori’s solo show opens at Dorothy Circus Gallery in Rome on April 12 and will be on view through May 6.