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Takanobu Kobayashi at the Nishimura Gallery 2000

by Monty DiPietro

If you've ever been caught in a Bangkok traffic jam, it's a fair bet that 'beautiful' would not be a word you'd use to describe the scene. But a survey of Takanobu Kobayashi's new paintings gives the impression that the 40 year old still life painter loves the buses and big trucks and little tuk tuks that choke the Thai capital's streets. Further, under his simple, symmetrical and studied treatment, Kobayashi succeeds in bringing an improbable elegance to his adopted city's vehicles.

Kobayashi's subject matter also includes teapots; forests; and, in a departure from the artist's usual focus on inanimate subject matter, a stray kitten found scrounging food from a local restaurant and a man who appears to be urinating against a wall. All together, some 20 new oil on canvas works make up the Nishimura Gallery's now-annual Kobayashi exhibition, a nice opportunity for fans of the painter to drop in and see what he has been up to over the last year.

While each of Kobayashi's vehicles is parked on its own canvas, these pictures are hung on a single wall to create interrelationships that brings the viewer to imagine the context of street and city. This is a new way of looking at Kobayashi's work, and the semi-installation-style arrangement works quite well.

Consistent with Kobayashi's usual compositional style, the cars, trucks, and motorcycles are all centered on their canvases. Each is viewed in what seems a hot gray dusk, such that the tail lights seem to glow slightly. Providing contrast to the muted colors of the vehicles is the largest work in the show (at almost two meters square), which is of a lush forest with a lonely footpath running through its center.

One of the strange and wonderful aspects of Takanobu Kobayashi's art has always been the way in which his pictures manage to bring so much presence to objects not normally seen to posses much in the way of visual appeal. He paints the stuff he finds in his everyday life, with little or no background information to clutter the pictures.

The soft-spoken artist is Zen-like in his quiet contemplation of subject matter. He says he paints looking to describe the feelings he has for and the relationship he has with his subject matter. There is a sense that comes through the work of a dedication to process, as Kobayashi works to evolve what he has termed "a new Nihonga," this a reference to the traditional Japanese painting style that flourished in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

"When I paint, I want to be unconscious," explains Kobayashi. "I do not feel that I am holding a brush, a sense that the tip of the brush becomes a finger. I am not aware that I am painting and suddenly I realize that a painting is completed."

Kobayashi began working in what has become his signature style after graduation from the Aichi Prefectural University of Fine Arts in 1986. Ten years later, he was awarded an Encouragement Prize at the VOCA (Vision of Contemporary Art) exhibition, a showcase of Japan's best emerging artists. Soon afterward, a scholarship from the Bureau of Cultural Properties sent Kobayashi to Bangkok.

His first Bangkok still lifes, of crockery and the like, earned Kobayashi recognition at home and a Daimler-Benz-sponsored artist-in-residency in Monflanquin, 13th C. village in south-central France. The artist spent a summer in France, but last year made the decision to relocate to Thailand, where, he says, the atmosphere perfectly suits his approach to painting. Tokyo, in Kobayashi's opinion, has too many galleries, museums, and art publications whereas in Thailand, a painter can work in relative obscurity. For the retiring Kobayashi, keeping his distance from the Japanese art scene allows his work to develop in a pressure-free environment.

In his earlier paintings Kobayashi's subject matter was more likely to come from the artist's interior environments some of the best canvases featured white French pillows, neatly-made beds and simple porcelain sinks and cooking elements. This time around, Kobayashi has taken us into the streets. The resulting pictures are no less popular with Kobayashi's collectors an hour or so into the opening night reception more than half of the works on the Nishimura's walls were sold.

Takanobu Kobayashi is at the Nishimura Gallery in Ginza (3567-3906) until December 2. Pictured is "Taxi" (2000), oil on canvas.
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