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Milt Kobayashi : Introspection

July 8, 2018 - Kelly Skeen

“I call myself a romantic realist,” says New York painter Milt Kobayashi, whose impressionistic figurative portraits draw influence from Japanese print artists as well as Western master painters like Sargent and Whistler. Kobayashi works in a two dimensional picture plane with a monolithic feel, emphasizing dominant figures while juxtaposing bold patterns against loose color fields. Japanese print masters Sharaku and Utamaro influence these traits in Kobayashi’s work, connecting the Japanese-American artist with his cultural heritage. 

“Whistler was extremely influenced by Japanese art,” says Kobayashi of one of his earliest artistic inspirations. “That was how I was introduced to it, and I was emboldened by it as a Japanese American. I was excited by my roots, so to speak.”

Kobayashi’s compositions may have a flattened feel, but his subject matter brings alluring depth to his work. For his solo show, “Introspection” Kobayashi paints female figures that intrigue the viewer as we imagine their private inner dialogues. Distracted, pensive or moody, Kobayashi’s figures are composed as disengaged groups or solitary subjects who seem to catch our eye with passing glances. There is an eerie romance to Kobayashi’s compositions, which are painted with broken brushwork and abstracted edges. Vivid pink skirts, bright orange hair and bold polka dot patterns also contribute to the enchantment of each piece, while skewed perspectives transport us into dream-like realms. Kobayashi refers to his paintings as “private portraits” as his figures are typically absorbed by their own introspection, even though they often exist in busy cafes or restaurants.

“People often ask, “What restaurant did you get these scenes from?” But I don’t take pictures of restaurants,” he says. “All the settings are made up and they’re unimportant. What’s important are the people. They are private portraits that just happen to be in a public setting.”

Kobayashi worked as a successful illustrator in Los Angeles before he began painting professionally. Inspirational visits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art upon his return to New York in 1977 directed the artist to his current style. Kobayashi’s current process relates the artist to his painted figures. “As an illustrator, you’re executing an idea by an art director,” he explains. “Fine art is a whole different thing – you have to draw from within yourself.”

Introspection opens on Friday, July 20thfrom 5-7pm and will remain on display through July 27th.

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