I am interested in making imagery about the places where stories begin. I want to make an image where viewers might be able to imagine what would happen the second after the moment that’s shown, or after the 'main event' in the painting. -- Minami Kobayashi
Goldfinch is thrilled to present our second solo exhibition with Minami Kobayashi, "Somewhere Not Here," opening on Sunday November 6th (reception 3-6pm) and on view through Saturday, December 17th.
Spanning both Galleries 1 and 2, this new body of paintings by the London-based Kobayashi centers around themes of travel, and the strangeness, surreality and occasional feelings of loneliness and alienation that can come with being far away from familiar surroundings. Kobayashi, who was born in 1989 in Nagoya, Japan and received her MFA in Painting from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2018, is drawn to moments that suggest something "beyond" what can be perceived with eyes alone: "I'm looking to capture something too weird to be real, something that I cannot see with my eyes or capture on camera...but I can tell it's there."
Kobayashi notes the influence of Japanese Yokai (ghost stories) on some of her paintings' imagery and sense of atmosphere, as well as a contemporary sensitivity to the awesome power of nature to nurture as well as to destroy. "I grew up in the country with lots of nature disaster like typhoons and earthquakes. I have seen nature destroy people's lives with tremendous power that no one could stop," the artist notes. Animals also appear in her paintings, often in the form of dogs, hyenas, or spiders, and Kobayashi explains that she thinks of these animals symbolically, as humans taking different shapes or forms. "In my paintings...dogs are often symbolized as a mother figure, due to the shared attribute of gratuitous love. I love dogs...but I also want to explore parallels between their traits of loyalty and service, which are also expected of women in my country."
Although the dreamlike quality of Kobayashi's style of depiction lends a certain timelessness to the moments she paints--suggesting that they could be happening sixty years ago, or just yesterday--the appearance of smart phones in several of her works points to the artist's acknowledgement that how we see and remember things nowadays often depends on how our cameraphones capture and display them. "For this show at Goldfinch, I have made paintings about the times when I was traveling somewhere and the smartphone was there to connect me with where I was. . . I have sometimes been so far from my loved ones, and the small square of a phone screen was the only window for me to be connected with them." Kobayashi's new paintings provide us with yet another point of connection: they are not a window, not a screen, not a mirror, but are instead an ingress where the otherworldly, the hallucinatory and the mundane and terrifying beauty of daily life seep through the cracks of our reality--or as Kobayashi herself puts it, they are "the places where stories begin."
A CONVERSATION BETWEEN MINAMI KOBAYSHI AND CURATORIAL DIRECTOR ELIZABETH LALLEY
Elizabeth Lalley: There’s a surrealism within many of your works—a mood or atmosphere that tells (or shows) us almost more about what is happening in the scene than the actions or events of the scene themselves. It reminds me a little of David Lynch’s films, in which a setting, or the behavior of the characters and their proximity to each other, tells us something about what’s happening, even if the action is mysterious or mostly veiled. Can you talk a little about how you think of this surreality? How are the events within these paintings both “real” and also “off-kilter,” in your eyes?
Minami Kobayshi: I am interested in making imagery about the places where stories begin. I want to make an image where viewers might be able to imagine what would happen the second after the moment that’s shown, or after the “main event” in the painting.
Like, when you are shampooing as usual, and all the sudden, you feel weird and look back to check what might be behind you. There is always nothing but you feel horrified right before you look back. I think of these paintings as moments between daily life and strange worlds. I’m looking to capture something too weird to be real, something that I cannot see with my eyes or capture on camera…but I can tell it’s there. They can be private spaces, where we are allowed to have fun, or feel sorrow and anger in our heads as much as we want…all very real feelings that others might not recognize by our appearances.
EL: How do you think about balancing levity and joy within the paintings with the sense of eeriness or an ominous quality that often looms?
MK: Here, it’s important to talk about the influence of Japanese old stories. There are many old stories in Japan. I used to be scared of ghosts and monsters, but there are funny little stories about them. They’re called Yokai (monsters/demons in Japanese), and I used to read these stories and found them fascinating.
I love people and nature, but both can be cruel and mean sometimes; I used to feel I could not stand it. I tried to change shift my perspective and this inner training has affected how I paint, I think. I grew up in the country with lots of nature disasters like typhoons and earthquakes. I have seen nature destroy people’s lives with tremendous power that no one could stop.
People are vulnerable. Relationships between people can go really wrong even when people try to keep them peaceful.
This sounds so pathetic but this ephemerality makes them even more beautiful and attractive to me.
EL: Can you talk about the relationships between humans and animals in these works?
MK: I depict animals as humans in different shapes or forms.
I grew up looking after a dog with whom I used to feel closer than to some humans. My dad talks to animals and insects which is something I love seeing. Some Japanese people believe that if you see a spider in your home it means that an important person who passed away is visiting you. I saw this recently in London, where I am currently living.
Another example of animal symbolism in my paintings is the way that dogs are often symbolized as a mother figure, due to the shared attribute of gratuitous love. I love dogs, and I feel safe and peaceful with them, but I also want to explore parallels between their traits of loyalty and service, which are also expected of women in my country.
EL: I want to talk specifically about fingernails, which play a surprising part in many of your paintings. There are moments when the hands in your paintings display fingernails that stretch and curve in “unnatural” ways, becoming almost like psychedelic talons, but also like drag or costuming, or aesthetic embellishment. These nails also highlight a certain “animal-ness” of the human figure in the painting. Can you talk about these nails and the way you incorporate them into many of your paintings?
MK: I think of hands as another face. You look at them when you want to look at yourself. You never see your face without a mirror or camera. In that sense, your hands are yourself in front of you.
I’m interested in how people dress their hands with long nails as an obvious symbol of femininity. Nails can be a powerful element of your body, but at the same time they can make your life harder. Activities such as typing on a keyboard, eating, painting, or sculpting clay become difficult, because you might not want to chip or break your nails or damage the artwork. I like this contradiction.
EL: In the paintings, animals and humans do not appear to be at odds, but they are not in perfect harmony either. Humans are often observers, even when they are looking at animals with a sense of tenderness. It feels like you’re thinking about distances between living things, in different ways. Can you talk a little about this idea?
It's an interesting observation, thank you. I don’t know if this answers the question but I often feel that it is impossible and meaningless to act falsely in front of animals. This is a precious feeling but also a vulnerable state. I want to paint people who are being fully themselves, so animals are often with them since that’s the kind of situation I associate with honesty.
EL: I also think about the colors you use in your paintings, in relation to the idea of seeing the world through non-human eyes. Sometimes the colors are unexpected, and feel things are being seen through the “eyes” of something not human, like an animal or even a plant. How do you think about color in these terms?
MK: Painting is a form of media that can be totally free from reality. I don’t like painting from photos even though I often use them to recall my memories and experience, because photos are the result of what a camera captured—and that’s a different expression. Living things are made of multiple colorful and translucent layers, and what we see is a reflection of the light around us, so I think the object can be various colors.
To speak specifically about what influenced this thinking…I was definitely affected by Les Nabis and Fauvism. Pierre Bonnard and Édouard Vuillard are my favorite painters in the group. Many of the works’ color palettes are not literal, and the use of shape is playful. Les Nabis were inspired by Japanese Ukiyo-e printing so they feel familiar with my own culture.
EL: I’m interested in the appearance of smart phones in many of your paintings. Often, they’re mediating or framing the scene, but often they’re hidden too—it takes us a moment to notice them. Sometimes the figures in these paintings are using their smartphones to document the world in front of them, and sometimes they are distracted by their phones from the world in front of them. So in a way, the phones create worlds within worlds, in these paintings. Can you talk a little about this recurring motif of the phone within the paintings? How do you balance criticality with simple acknowledgement of their role in our lives, and the way they create but also close distances for us, too?
MK: I have sometimes been so far from my loved ones, and the small square of a phone screen was the only window for me to be connected with them. By calling them or seeing old photos in an album…what this provides me with has been impossible to count.
For this show at Goldfinch, I have made paintings about the times when I was travelling somewhere, and the smart-phone was there to connect me with where I was. Again, to speak about an influence or some cultural moment that captured this: a phone is kind of like a small version of the monolith from 2001– A Space Odyssey. In this film the monolith marks a point of departure for the protagonists, after which the plot shifts and change is all about.
EL: I also wanted to ask if you’re interested in dreams and in analyzing dreams. You’ve mentioned in-between worlds in regards to your work, so I’m curious if you analyze or remember your dreams?
MK: I have weird dreams, and I remember some of them. Sometimes they’re so vivid, and I occasionally feel that these dream-worlds contain other versions of me. I might be a sea creature in another world since many of my dreams are somehow in the water.
A dream is a strange experience in that my body does not experience it, and therefore the memory of it starts to disappear as soon as I wake up.
Painting is a bit like this but the other way around; I try to create and depict a scene that doesn’t exist in real life, but I will know all the textures and smells of the space by the time I finish the painting.
EL: I’m interested in how you often use human figures as frames (sometimes partial frames) for the scenery. Or their bodies mimic the scenery in different ways, like the couple on a train forming a mini mountain with their hands. Can you talk a little about that compositional choice?
MK: To be honest, it often appears subconsciously without intention. When I am painting, I discover repetition of forms in my work and can be surprised. Maybe because I have been drawing the same things repeatedly since I was little; it could be something in my nature. I am so happy when I find these subconscious pictorial elements in my work.
Body language of course is such a key form of communication, and I think expression of any part of a body can tell a lot about that person. You do not hear people’s voices in my painting, so bodies are the key element in my work.