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Flesh Forward: The Controversial Photos of Nobuyoshi Araki

Look, we all know art is what you make of it. An image, a project, a structure can move you or make you recoil – and reactions differ from viewer to viewer.

So when you see a photograph of a Japanese woman tied up in ropes, her breasts exposed and squeezed by knotted twine, what do you make of it?

Is it porn? Is it false and forced? Is it beautiful? Is it misogynistic? Do the frames hold deep cultural meaning or nothing at all?

In the case of Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki, it’s hard to peg down.

Between his barrage of sexual imagery – and the amount of work he churns out (he has over 450 photo books under his belt) – it’s no wonder why Araki’s one of the world’s most controversial photographers.

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Those in America wanting to test the blue, lusty waters of Araki’s world can now view some of his prints, Polaroids, and negatives at the Mana Contemporary – a gallery, workshop, storage space, and more in Jersey City, New Jersey.

The exhibit at Mana, courtesy of an unnamed private collector, is being billed as the largest exhibit of Araki’s work in the U.S.

And visitors there will encounter over 45 large images, a glass stand holding scores of negatives, a stack of Poloraids strewn about an enclosed pen, a collection of books, and a documentary on the 72-year-old artist, who is currently living in Japan.

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Although we didn’t see any photos that Araki took of his dying wife (which is hailed as one of his most important achievements), for the most part, the N.J. exhibit contains all of Araki’s main hallmarks. There’s bondage, nude women in various poses and states of undress, and sly nature shots.

Araki is known worldwide. He’s impacted the work of many artists, including photographer Nan Goldin, and throughout the exhibit you can sometimes understand why.

Some of the images shown in Jersey City are unabashed winners. On a good day, Araki’s photos are as powerful as they come. Particularly strong are his black and white snaps. The contrasts of light and dark pop – and the lack of color lends weight to some serious sexual subject matter.

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In a black and white world, Araki connects best with his subjects. There’s the right amount of distance – with real, raw emotion — and the reaction is gut-felt.

Throw in color, and Araki seems to be just a pervy guy snapping nudie or fetish shots.

We know many will disagree, but when we were face to face with Araki’s large color prints we just couldn’t help wondering if the man was just tying up women for kicks; asking his models to pose with staged expressions of pain, hunger or emptiness; and pressing down on the shutter button with the amateurish excitement of a hormonal teenage boy.

But this too is the beauty of Mana’s Araki exhibit for it not only makes you question the man and his motives, but, upon allowance, it also causes you to examine your own view on art and the way you perceive the world. And that, to us, is important, and no small feat.

Very early on in the show, an Araki quote is stenciled on the wall. It says: “To observe life as well as death embraced in life, or life embraced in death, that is the act of photography.”

In Jersey City, we didn’t notice life or death being played out. We just saw an artist, exposed, knotted and, on his best days, extraordinarily masterful.

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RATING: 4 out of 5 Whistles.

Mana Contemporary’s Araki exhibit is free to the public and runs from May 4th to August 16th. Check with the gallery’s website, http://www.manafinearts.com, for more information or to see how to make an appointment for a guided tour.

NOTE: Mana is throwing an opening party on May 4th from 1-7 p.m. Anyone wishing to join the festivities can take free shuttles from Milk Studios in Manhattan (450 W. 15th Street) starting at 12:30 p.m.

Photos Courtesy of Adam Cohen

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