When I first encountered the work of the painter Osamu Kobayashi in person, I was overcome with an almost-preternatural sense of familiarity, like seeing a movie for the 'first time' that you had actually seen and forgotten as a child. And in this familiarity I also experienced a tranquil calm, unconcerned with categorizing what I was viewing and instead, happy to simply experience it. Although there were only five paintings on display for his solo show Woogie held at Underdonk Gallery in Bushwick in late August and early September, I left buzzing with a relaxed energy that I tended to experience in the presence of such personal icons' work as Agnes Martin or Channa Horowitz. Similar to these two grid-focused minimalists who achieve a poeticism through rigid grids, Kobayashi seemed to exist on the other end of the same spectrum,the often sprawling quality exhibited by Abstract Expressionism heavily reined in by the artist to create paintings that are assured and straight-forward while plumbing the depths of abstraction.
In Kobayashi's assured and sweeping brushstrokes, the abstraction is reduced to two or three main color fields as deceptively simple shapes and forms commingle on the canvas. Pieces like the above Wiggle have a visual punch to them that much of today's graphic design-influenced art tends to have, the orange-yellow and pink stream perfectly complementing one another as if their lives depended on it. Indeed, as the press release for the show attested, Kobayshi seemed to have "caught the rhythm," so to speak. It wasn't until viewing his previous work that this statement began to come into focus. Here was an artist nimbly gliding from one creative phase that favored saturated fields of color punctuated by shapes and forms to a new one in which the monolithic color fields were colonized by swathes of nuanced color and distinctive shapes that were at-once familiar and alien (it also didn't hurt that this new work had such vibrant titles as Boogie and Light Show). Across his work, he continually embraces the signifiers of several schools of art--Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, Color Field--while refusing to be lumped into any single category, happy to rely on its own artist-given sense of style.
Only a few days within seeing Kobayashi's meditative and genre-defying paintings did I come across Jerry Saltz essay entitled "The Tyranny of Art History in Contemporary Art" in which the esteemed critic and crabapple railed against the rigidity of art history and the discipline's inclination to place everything into neatly labeled boxes, regardless of whether it fits or not. In closing out the piece, Saltz evokes effective imagery to describe his utopianary art world as resembling a garden that is home to "exotic blooms of known and unknown phenomena" allowed to exist on its own, without the labeling hand of art historians. And both in that gallery and online, charting one's way through Kobayashi's oeuvre feels like exploring a patch of Saltz's garden, the artist moving freely through art's stylistic history while creating pieces that radiate with his hallmark humor and patience, open to endless possibilities.
Similar to the receptive demeanor of his paintings, Kobayashi was quite open to doing an interview to help me to better understand what I was seeing while also learning more about the artist himself. And hopefully he would confirm or dismiss my suspicions regarding his reluctance towards easy classification, intent on remaining in between any fixed definitions. And as you'll read in the below answers, this resistance regarding artistic labels is certainly bored out as we meet a character who possesses a singular sensibility that is gentle as it is bold, calmly intent on realizing its author's intention. So read on as we discuss his on-the-nose titles, his sources of inspiration, and the "thriving ecosystem" he creates through painting.
Firstly, could you just give us a bit of your personal background in terms of where you're from and when, whether it was your childhood or adolescence or another time, you first became interested in art and painting and why? Did you gravitate to art in general as a child, or particularly painting and why is it your chosen medium?
O: I grew up in Columbia, South Carolina in the 80’s and 90’s. As a kid I drew incessantly thinking I would eventually become an animator or cartoonist. In high school, my focus concentrated on fine art, and after experimenting with different ways of making art, painting is what spoke to me. My interest became particularly heightened in college after understanding the then current art discourse and hearing about the death of painting. Being a painter felt like a cause and I was working against the tide. Even so, I believed in its ability to stay relevant and radical. Nowadays, painting seems to be the norm.
Do you work full-time as an artist or do other work to supplement your income? What has been your experience juggling your career as an artist with the realities of living in New York City?
O: Right now I work part-time for the artist, Philip Pearlstein. My work/life balance is good at the moment because I enjoy my job and I have enough time to paint. That wasn’t the case for the first half of living here. I worked a full-time [job] and much of my extra time went to painting with little left over. The energy of the city and other artists is what kept me going.
How do you generally approach any given painting? Do you have an idea in mind before your brush hits the canvas or is it something that almost takes on a life of its own?
O: There’s always an idea in mind. For a long time my approach was to look at a blank canvas and imagine a compelling image to paint. I might make a couple of quick sketches of the idea before starting, but often I would not. That approach was fine for those works because they would often develop over the course of multiple sittings. If I made a mistake, I could paint over it--traces of the history left intact and embraced.
Lately, I’ve wanted the work to look fresher so I’ll try and get a finished painting from the start. I’ll make multiple sketches beforehand, many of which look almost identical to the others. The reason being is that I work out the more subtle nuanced changes on paper first before translating that onto canvas.
What is the process of inspiration like for you? By that, I mean, do you find yourself frequently going to other galleries and museums to find inspiration, or does it come from a more internal, personal? Or is it a bit of both?
O: I often go to galleries but I don’t go for inspiration for my own work. Occasionally, compelling art does alter how I approach my paintings but it’s often not so direct or I see the connection much later. More often the case, inspiration comes from thinking about my own previous work and expanding upon that. I see my paintings as part of a continuum and less as a series of one-offs.
In terms of art and its desire to over-classify itself, how would you label your style of painting, if you absolutely had to? For me, it calls to mind post-AbEx, minimalism, and many of the Color Field artists. Do you identify with any of these movements or the artists involved? Do you draw inspiration from them? Or do you avoid these categorizations and labels, if you can?
O: I prefer not to think of my work as being a part of any one category. That said, I do think my work falls somewhere in-between Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, Color Field, and Surrealism. Categories by their nature conflict with one another so to embrace more than one may seem paradoxical. Abstract Expressionism, for example, came about partly as a reaction against Surrealism and other movements’ insistent use of real world forms. Similar to the work of artists like Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning, I see my paintings existing simultaneously in the abstract and tangible world.
Your art, especially your most recent show, has a curious sense of movement in that while the shapes are static, they in fact feel vibrant and in motion almost, either in that one can feel the movements required to create a certain stroke. This feels a bit different from the body of work that is available to view online, where the movement comes more from a vibrancy emanating from the images themselves. Do you feel that your work and approach to art is developing and evolving/changing or are you just exploring a different facet of your self? Does your work contain a certain energy for you?
The shapes are only static in the sense that they are flat but otherwise they are full of movement. The recent work relies less on geometry and the forms are more organic and flowing. I wanted to keep the eye moving around and not stopping on one particular part. I believe this movement in a way makes the work more playful. For the most part, focus is less directed and hierarchy leveled, allowing for enjoyment of all the parts in a more uniform way. These works are an evolution from what I was making prior but they are not necessarily better. They speak more to my current interests and what I am thinking about at the moment.
I'm very interested at the tension in your painting between their rather minimal natures, your view of your compositions as "clear statements," and the way abstraction naturally obfuscates these clear statements. Could you speak to this wonderful paradox in the work? Your paintings are at once straightforward and easy to digest on first view, but this belies the fact that there is much more going on than you simply drawing lines and shapes.
O: Every shape, size, color, and texture is considered in relation to all the others when making a painting. The size of a shape will influence the color it will be, which also influences the texture I choose, which influences the shape next to that, and across from it, etc. Like a thriving ecosystem, every element is crucial for the rest to exist. I reduce the number of forms in a given work to just a few so there’s a sense that it can be deconstructed and therefore thoroughly understood. However, that understanding only goes so far. There’s always a lingering sense of mystery that cannot be resolved but just has to be accepted as part of what completes the work.
What benefit, if any, do you find using a readily identifiable visusal lexicon in the service of abstraction. For instance, Pickle Frown resembles exactly what it its title indicates, yet one can't help that you're having a bit of fun with the name. In what ways is your work a confrontation of people's previously held views about painting or abstract art?
O: My titles always come after the paintings are made. All the forms I use are ambiguous but some more than others. Sometimes I know how a form will likely be read before I make it, but other times it’s a surprise. I knew Pickle Frown would look like its title before starting, but I knew it could also act as an abstracted form devoid of reference. It’s humorous but also thoughtful at the same time, and the mind does a sort of flip between the two while looking at it. I like that.
Note: The above five paintings are the pieces that made up Kobayashi's show at the Underdonk Gallery. To give you a better sense of how they represent a shift in the artist's style, here are some personal favorites from the past few years. Much more can be viewed on the artist's website.