NONAKA-HILL

January 29, 2021




Nonaka-Hill is an art gallery hemming the western fringe of Hancock Park in Los Angeles. Helmed by Rodney Nonaka (née Hill) and his husband Taka Nonaka, the gallery offers an intimate street-level view of Japan’s vast artistic output, a culture that – even in our deeply connected world – remains intriguingly opaque. We sat down with them to learn more about their background, relationship, and gallery life during Covid-19.


  Nonaka-Hill is an art gallery hemming the western fringe of Hancock Park in Los Angeles. Helmed by Rodney Nonaka (née Hill) and his husband Taka Nonaka, the gallery offers an intimate street-level view of Japan’s vast artistic output, a culture that – even in our deeply connected world – remains intriguingly opaque.

We sat down with them to learn more about their background, relationship, and gallery life during Covid-19.



Who are you and where did you meet?

Rodney: I used to be Rodney Hill, before I married Taka. Nonaka means middle of the field; we have a very pastoral name. We met in 2006 on Myspace. It was the moment where you could take a photo from your phone and place it into another person’s phone.

Taka: I found his profile picture cute, and I read his profile, he wrote my hero is Rei Kawakubo, and I thought, who is this guy?

What was your path?

Rodney: In 1904 my great grandparents lived in japan, and when they moved back to the United States they brought antiques which ended up in my parents living room; some of the objects were said to be gifts to my great grandfather from the Emperor. I grew up in Michigan, and always had a sense of pride that the people in my family had gone to this far away place. While other boys drew cars, I was drawing Japanese gardens.

Taka: I’m from the Nagasaki countryside and moved to Osaka as soon as I could, working construction jobs, and deejaying at clubs and bars. Eventually I got fed up with Osaka and tried to move into Tokyo. I asked my friend if he knew anyone there, because I needed work. He knew the Mama-san of this popular gay bar who got me a job. I was 19. I worked in nightlife for a long time, then I wanted to see the sunlight. I got a job as an Art Director for the Japanese showroom, HP France. I worked with them for twenty years.

Rodney: I started college in 1982 and studied art history, with a focus on Japan. The textbook ended with woodblock prints, the kind enjoyed by Van Gogh. Japanese art history was not being respectfully taught. I was interested in the fashion scene, too, and so I was like, ‘How does art history end with woodblock prints, but you have all this great design?’ I had this desire to be a curator of Japanese art.

"It’s this monolithic, one-track thing, with modernism being the highest end goal. It’s based in New York and Europe, and it’s run by white men."

Shows at Nonaka-Hill fall beyond the parameters of the traditional gallery model. One presentation might highlight architecture, with nothing for sale. Another might show traditional wall work. Once, between exhibitions, a local artist created a facsimile of a dumpster crammed with spent installations from the previous show. With big open windows and a strip-mall locale, the space feels more like an inviting boutique than a stuffy gallery. Pre-pandemic, they kept later hours to accommodate diners strolling in after a meal (the space lies catty-corner to Nancy Silverton’s sprawling Mozzaplex, and the now-shuttered Troís Mec sits just next door). Sometimes their shows wrestle with traditional Japanese crafts shown in a contemporary context, as with a recent presentation of work by the 16th generation master ceramist, Hosai Matsubayashi XVI and the Japanese-American artist, Trevor Shimizu. The exhibition paired tea ceremony ceramics produced by Matsubayashi in Kyoto with landscape and nature paintings by Shimizu rendered in Dobbs Ferry, New York.

What’s the mission of Nonaka-Hill?

Rodney: To answer for what I felt was a void in art history. It’s this monolithic, one-track
thing, with modernism being the highest end goal. It’s based in New York and Europe, and it’s run by white men. For me I realized that my interest in Japan was undeniable and it’s what I always wanted to work in. I’m monogamous with Japan, and entirely promiscuous otherwise. The agenda is to create the classroom that I never had. This last show, for instance, I had to fully immerse myself in the history of tea, which before I’d known nothing about.

Prior to Nonaka-Hill, Rodney and his former business partner, Marc Foxx, were the first gallery to show work by Sterling Ruby, who would go on to collaborate with Raf Simons, and later form his own eponymous line (Foxx is responsible for connecting Ruby and Simons). This past September Nonaka-Hill hosted a new collection of Ruby’s ceramic works. The show was a critical and commercial success.

How’s it been during covid?

Rodney: In the beginning I was really worried for our survival, as I still am. I feel like the gallery offers people respite from the world, it’s a quiet space, it’s not crowded, it creates a safe space, we’re very lucky to be able to offer that to people, they exhale and they haven’t had that feeling in forever. The pandemic made me even more committed to offering the in person experience with real physical artworks. We’re lucky to be very lean and nimble. Galleries reflect what their gallerists are thinking about; Nonaka-Hill finds a loving couple in rapt conversation over their respective cultures. Nonaka-Hill is a little shrine of curiosity in a strip mall on Highland, the kind of trans-Pacific partnership we could all stand to emulate.

Who are you and where did you meet?

Rodney: I used to be Rodney Hill, before I married Taka. Nonaka means middle of the field; we have a very pastoral name. We met in 2006 on Myspace. It was the moment where you could take a photo from your phone and place it into another person’s phone.

Taka: I found his profile picture cute, and I read his profile, he wrote my hero is Rei Kawakubo, and I thought, who is this guy?

What was your path?

Rodney: In 1904 my great grandparents lived in japan, and when they moved back to the United States they brought antiques which ended up in my parents living room; some of the objects were said to be gifts to my great grandfather from the Emperor. I grew up in Michigan, and always had a sense of pride that the people in my family had gone to this far away place. While other boys drew cars, I was drawing Japanese gardens.

Taka: I’m from the Nagasaki countryside and moved to Osaka as soon as I could, working construction jobs, and deejaying at clubs and bars. Eventually I got fed up with Osaka and tried to move into Tokyo. I asked my friend if he knew anyone there, because I needed work. He knew the Mama-san of this popular gay bar who got me a job. I was 19. I worked in nightlife for a long time, then I wanted to see the sunlight. I got a job as an Art Director for the Japanese showroom, HP France. I worked with them for twenty years.

Rodney: I started college in 1982 and studied art history, with a focus on Japan. The textbook ended with woodblock prints, the kind enjoyed by Van Gogh. Japanese art history was not being respectfully taught. I was interested in the fashion scene, too, and so I was like, ‘How does art history end with woodblock prints, but you have all this great design?’ I had this desire to be a curator of Japanese art.

Shows at Nonaka-Hill fall beyond the parameters of the traditional gallery model. One presentation might highlight architecture, with nothing for sale. Another might show traditional wall work. Once, between exhibitions, a local artist created a facsimile of a dumpster crammed with spent installations from the previous show. With big open windows and a strip-mall locale, the space feels more like an inviting boutique than a stuffy gallery. Pre-pandemic, they kept later hours to accommodate diners strolling in after a meal (the space lies catty-corner to Nancy Silverton’s sprawling Mozzaplex, and the now-shuttered Troís Mec sits just next door). Sometimes their shows wrestle with traditional Japanese crafts shown in a contemporary context, as with a recent presentation of work by the 16th generation master ceramist, Hosai Matsubayashi XVI and the Japanese-American artist, Trevor Shimizu. The exhibition paired tea ceremony ceramics produced by Matsubayashi in Kyoto with landscape and nature paintings by Shimizu rendered in Dobbs Ferry, New York.

What’s the mission of Nonaka-Hill?

Rodney: To answer for what I felt was a void in art history. It’s this monolithic, one-track
thing, with modernism being the highest end goal. It’s based in New York and Europe, and it’s run by white men. For me I realized that my interest in Japan was undeniable and it’s what I always wanted to work in. I’m monogamous with Japan, and entirely promiscuous otherwise. The agenda is to create the classroom that I never had. This last show, for instance, I had to fully immerse myself in the history of tea, which before I’d known nothing about.

Prior to Nonaka-Hill, Rodney and his former business partner, Marc Foxx, were the first gallery to show work by Sterling Ruby, who would go on to collaborate with Raf Simons, and later form his own eponymous line (Foxx is responsible for connecting Ruby and Simons). This past
September Nonaka-Hill hosted a new collection of Ruby’s ceramic works. The show was a critical and commercial success.


"It’s this monolithic, one-track thing, with modernism being the highest end goal. It’s based in New York and Europe, and it’s run by white men."

How’s it been during covid?

Rodney: In the beginning I was really worried for our survival, as I still am. I feel like the gallery offers people respite from the world, it’s a quiet space, it’s not crowded, it creates a safe space, we’re very lucky to be able to offer that to people, they exhale and they haven’t had that feeling in forever. The pandemic made me even more committed to offering the in-person experience with real physical artworks. We’re lucky to be very lean and nimble. Galleries reflect what their gallerists are thinking about; Nonaka-Hill finds a loving couple in rapt conversation over their respective cultures. Nonaka-Hill is a little shrine of curiosity in a strip mall on Highland, the kind of trans-Pacific partnership we could all stand to emulate.


Photography: