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Hisako Kobayashi has lived for many years on the edge of the East Village, where she also maintains a studio. A painter of depth and insight, she works with emotions embodied mostly in her treatment of color, which illustrates and expands upon her interest in a contemplative mode in art. Educated here at Pratt Institute, Kobayashi paints spiritual exercises that are inspired by nature. Her colors are both dark and luminous; sometimes, they remind the viewer of Klee’s mystical visions, and sometimes, they look like something much more contemporary—such as the paintings of Terry Winters. As an artist who addresses feeling, Kobayashi interprets the mood she is painting in. These paintings also belong to the tradition of the New York School, which would make sense given the many years she has spent in the city. Her art really does engage Western painting, although the contemplative nature and quietist feeling of her works make it clear that she is a person of two cultures. Based on nature, her abstraction continues a long dialogue with the world’s physical beauty—a vision that relates both to Western and Asian art.

Hisako Kobayashi, “One and Only Force” (2014). Oil on canvas, 22 × 28˝. Courtesy of the artist.

In most of her work, we sense that Kobayashi is working with intuition, the mainstay of abstract painting. At the same time, she brings into the picture hints or even direct references to the night sky and other visions of nature. Her renderings are far from exact; instead, they are poetic versions of the real thing, reflected in lyrical titles such as “Say in Silence” and “One And Only Force.” The mystical sense of artistic feeling is intensified by her visionary cast of color, which is especially strong in a dark-blue work likeOne And Only Force” (2014 – 15). Here the blue resonates across the canvas in powerful ways, broken up by lines scratched onto the surface and spheres that emit light from beneath the exterior or, in one case, painted brightly as a kind of galaxy on top of the blue pigment. The single example of the brilliant sphere focuses the audience’s gaze upon it like a beacon; it reinforces and redeems the deep, dark blue that surrounds its light. “One And Only Force” is an exercise in light, both shadowed and radiant. Its intensity of feeling leads us to believe that there is something behind the image, infusing it with unknown energies.

Emotion in abstract painting is often key to its success. In Kobayashi’s work, feeling, which cannot be analyzed or easily described, echoes through the fields of color she builds upon the canvas. It is very hard to measure or quantify emotion because it resists words; color tends to illustrate it more accurately than abstract nouns. For this reason, Kobayashi often looks like she is trying to project color as an indication of mood, which is far from simple to achieve. In her painting, the image becomes more than an object; it attempts a visionary mode, whose resonance becomes the main subject of Kobayashi’s interest. The triptych “Said in Silence” (2014 – 15), begins on the left with an array of reddish spheres; in the middle rest another group of rounded forms against a blue and yellow background; and on the right, a yellow ground shows off. In the right panel, starting at the top and moving down toward the bottom, are a group of spheres, some of which are given a red hue. The feeling that these circular forms come directly from nature is very strong; they interact through the presentation of similar shapes across the three panels. The painting evokes a silent presence that grounds it, emotionally and formally, in current American abstraction. The organic abstract compositions of an artist like Brenda Goodman, along with those of the painter Amy Sillman, reflect this duality of absence and presence as well. And while the work of Thomas Nozkowski is not exactly similar, it too depends on a vocabulary that pushes abstraction in the direction of lengthy consideration and the establishment of feeling.

In “About Mr. J. Hutto” (2014 – 15), another triptych, the panels’ background is a bright yellow, rhythmically punctuated by some scratched lines and groups of black spheres, with the darkest residing at the bottom of the painting. Here the interaction of the orbed forms builds a bit of presence in the picture, whose simplicity belies the real skill shown in the formation of its structure. “Say in Silence” (2014 – 15), on the other hand, returns to a bluish background, which this time is divided by a very rough grid of white lines splayed across the upper left and center of the picture. The linear structure imposes order in a sea of medium-dark blue. As a composition, the picture is a mixture of rationality and nearly oceanic feeling, indicating that both are needed to provide a full sense of inner life. In the ongoing ways of this and other works in the show, Kobayashi’s viewers experience a sense of concealed energies, hinted at but never directly spoken of. The paintings operate as fields of thought, diffused across broad swathes of intensely hued backgrounds. This is art that speaks to us of more than art.


Jonathan Goodman

Jonathan Goodman is an art writer and poet who focuses on modern and contemporary art.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2015

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