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Milt Kobayashi: Contemporizing Figurative Painting

July 5, 2017

In 1977, Milt Kobayashi encountered Diego Velazquez’ Portrait of Juan de Pareja during a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Its dramatic placement, framed by several arching doorways at the end of a long corridor, lured Kobayashi in and absorbed his attention for over half an hour. What particularly struck him about the painting was the way Velazquez broke down the barrier between painter and sitter to capture his subject’s essential being. “When I say the painting spoke to me, I mean it in a literal sense,” says the artist.

This influential experience also led Kobayashi to the realization that as an illustrator, his profession for about seven years, there was a limit to creating that kind of an effect from a printed page. When encountering a painting in a gallery or museum, the viewer is invited to observe each brushstroke, value and color the way the artist has intentionally laid it on the canvas. These close encounters are what Kobayashi strives to create with his art. “What I want to do with my paintings is bring people in,” he says, just the way Velazquez captivated him. “I think it’s really important for people to get close to my paintings. I want you to stick your nose in and get personal with it.”

Interestingly enough, Kobayashi paints with a very shallow depth of field, an influence that stems from his illustrative background and his study of Japanese print artists. Rather than use realist perspective to draw the viewer into his works, Kobayashi captivates us with pensive subjects, broken brushwork and bold color palettes, all rendered in two-dimensional picture planes. His female figures are aloof; divorced from their social context and caught during personal moments in public settings. However the figures are also mysteriously alluring, sending us furtive glances and inviting us into their private inner dialogue. Interesting shapes from billowing dresses or polka dotted purses contribute to the enticing quality of his compositions, while contorted poses and flamboyant details turn each piece into a dream-like vision.

For his upcoming exhibition, Kobayashi has created a consistent body of work depicting his typical introspective feminine subjects in café settings. The Japanese-American artist is revisiting this café motif as a way to witness his evolution as an artist and a career that has spanned over thirty years. The show opens on Friday, July 21st from 5-7pm and will remain on display through July 27th.


-Kelly Skeen

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