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Hisako Kobayashi: Deep Waters

Japanese-born Hisako Kobayashi has spent most of her adult life in New York, but like many Asian artists here, she seems to have maintained a very strong tie with her homeland. Indeed, it seems like friends and colleagues from Tokyo are always staying in her home downtown in New York. For decades now, she has been practicing a painting style of remarkable subtlety and depth, merging her evidently long experience with the New York School and the great Japanese awareness of and affection for nature. The paintings, rich in somber, muted colors and sometimes adorned with abstract strokes and effects, build toward an intuitive reason whose feeling occasions an awareness of depth--both of the outside world and the inner life of the artist herself. Where the two meet exactly is hard to determine, but it is clear that Kobayashi has, after decades of practice, originated an art that serves her purposes as a person living with the memory of a mostly rural Japan and the excitement of abstract expressionism’s penchant for lyric emotion.

Trained at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, Kobayashi has long experimented with replicating both the visual experience and the feeling of water, its ability to work as both metaphor and actuality in the presentation of natural and human depth. Indeed, when we say in English that we are in “deep waters,” the phrase can serve either as an indication of trouble or a recognition of profundity. In Kobayashi’s case, it is the latter. For the art writer commenting on her work, the first thing that comes to mind is the simplicity of structure, strengthened by a muted palette. One can react to her art’s capability for emotion as a way of understanding nature’s innate truthfulness in regard to affect, even elation. But this is all, and always unspoken, communication, something that Kobayashi recognizes immediately and, given her career, over time. While it becomes more and more difficult to discern and differentiate the meaning of contemporary Asian painting, it is also quite clear that Kobayashi has maintained strong ties in her mind to Japan--not only its reverence for nature, as I have said, but also its penchant for silent exchange, recognized emblematically as opposed to analytically.

Intuitive thinking lies at the base of most art; one’s process moves in the direction of silent understanding, supported by experience in the medium. It is the art writer’s job to unpack the meaningfulness of what is happening, even if, as happens in Kobayashi’s art, we find silence to be a dominant ploy. These works of art must be among the quietest I have ever come across; the Japanese penchant for reticence lies in the center of what the artist does. At the same time, for those of us living or schooled in New York, or conscious of recent American abstraction, the paintings relate to Rothko, himself a painter of extraordinarily deep feeling, and to the color field school, in which broad expanses of color take over the composition, giving it weight and a perception nearly mystical in its approach to light and hue. It is not always easy to persuade an audience of the internal reach of the artist making the painting, but Kobayashi does so on a consistent basis, making it clear that the primary emphasis of painting--indeed of art in general--is the communication of feeling rather than the sterility of an over intellectualized approach. Actually, Kobayashi’s work, while highly intelligent in an imagistic sense, can hardly be characterized as cerebral. But this is a strength and not a weakness.

Today, in the West especially, we tend to idealize Asian culture, although that is also changing as we move in the (very troubling) direction of a monoculture. Eclecticism dominates much art we see. But the appropriation of theme and stylistic effect is not always something to be supported; often, the borrowing results in a muddy reading of the culture one is taking from. But in the last two or three generations there has been a view of art that mixes and merges threads of different origins in ways that are highly original--this is especially true in New York, where such methods have been around for half a century. In Kobayashi’s case, we find that her painting communicates a quiet formalism that, likely, a long stay in New York would support, as well as an insightful reading of nature--even if that nature is abstracted rather than specified in detail. Fine art, painting particularly, now is rife with such esthetic intelligences. We can only assume that this may be the way of the future, in which influences may be picked up casually but in fact lead to art of remarkable gravity and formal innovation.

But this is a momentary enthusiasm; it has yet to be seen whether it will survive in the long run. My feeling is that it will--especially when artists such as Kobayashi move toward scroll-like paintings that become more and more dense with inference--on both a thematic and formal level. It is more than hard to specify what happens in her art, although we are compelled--stricken, actually--by the elegIac beauty we find suffusing her surface. This is not something that can be easily analyzed, nor can we do justice to Kobayashi’s strengths as an artist by guessing at her motivation. Instead, it becomes clear that she proceeds by means of an instinct nearly clairvoyant in its implications and also its results. The muted colors of her recent works, almost always in the shape of a vertical scroll, argue for a melancholy that can be read in a number of ways--as a personal expression, as a homage to an increasingly lost landscape, as a deliberate connection with the emotionally turbulent paintings of some abstract expressionists. Then, again, it may be all these things, as well as an art within Japanese painting tradition. Kobayashi’s achievement is notable in the sense that she seeks to portray a mystical understanding of nature that cannot be found so easily in the details of nature or, indeed, in the particulars of her art.

This lack of detail means that Kobayashi is concentrating on a method and a vision that is unspoken although rooted deeply in nature (but then nature’s beauty is always unspoken!). Arguments about where her art comes from are slightly moot. They do not explore or explain the beauty of her art. Instead, she proceeds by searching for the unknown. But Kobayashi, like all good artists, remains a painter first rather than a mystic. Her ideas and emotions are always communicated as color fields, in ways

 that reference things that ultimately can be seen. I can think of very few artists who so regularly bring to the fore a sense of intelligent depth, and as the title of this brief report indicates, the depth can be likened to deep waters. We are in a position today where computer art is starting to assert itself, but usually it cannot provide the gravitas we find in traditional art. Kobayashi again and again returns to what can only be described as a specifically Japanese willingness to accept the rise and fall of natural beauty, with an emphasis on the latter. Death is the originator of beauty. Kobayashi’s awareness of this paradox makes her work unusually melancholic, but it also invests it with a psychic and formal weight lacking in most contemporary art today. We must praise her determination to work in this way over so many years.


Jonathan Goodman

Images courtesy of the artist

Found by Chance, 48 x 61inches,  Oil on canvas

Found by Chance, 48 x 61inches,  Oil on canvas

Omoiyari,  60 x 40 inches, Oil on canvas

Omoiyari,  60 x 40 inches, Oil on canvas

Laughing Along, 60 x 48 inches, Oil On Canvas

Laughing Along, 60 x 48 inches, Oil On Canvas

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