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Mayumi Ohbayashi at Ben's Cafe

by Monty DiPietro

Anyone remember the good old oil on canvas painting? The mainstay of Rembrandt and a thousand artists before and after him, they may fill museum collections, but they are all but absent from contemporary art galleries.

Just in time, enter ten new oil paintings by Mayumi Ohbayashi, 36, now showing at the Kabe Gallery @ Benís Café, an airy and relatively new café and exhibition space located in the Takadanobaba district of Tokyoís Shinjuku Ward.

The pictures are a delight Ė Ohbayashiís initial palette of whites, grays, and browns nicely set off the artistís use of color Ė usually one or two vivid hues of magenta or yellow. Charcoal pencil lines peek through from behind the brushstrokes and the daubs and drips, testimony to Ohbayashiís love of the line and penchant for sketching. Actually, not all of her paintings are portraits per se, as Ohbayashi does not always use models. She often prefers to draw subjects from her imagination. Most of them look a little sad.

"Iím often told that my I should try to paint happier things," laughs Ohbayashi, and it is the only time she laughs during our interview. "I suppose Iím a bit of a pessimist," she says, "but certainly not a sad person. Itís just that since I was a child Iíve been attracted to dark things, I donít know why."

Ohbayashi lists Expressionist figure painter Egon Schiele among her influences, and not surprisingly she says she is less than impressed with the happy and cute work being produced by her Japanese contemporaries, most of whom have abandoned traditional artistic media such as oil painting.

"I really donít understand what they are trying to do, it all seems digital," she says, "I consider making art to be a process that comes from studying life. If I were to become famous like (trendy photographer) Hiromix, for example, by simply recording life, I think then Iíd truly be sad."

The idea for the Kabe Gallery @ Benís Café came from the very international Leah Workman, who is curating the dozen plus shows that go up there each year. Whereas Tokyoís "kashi" galleries charge artists to show, Benís does not. A look at the placeís event schedule would suggest that Benís is much more than just a café: along with the art shows there are immensely popular poetry readings, weekly Go lessons, and a monthly improv comedy show Ė all bilingual, and all free.

"I feel," says the caféís personable owner Ben Watson, "that a coffee house has a responsibility to support the artistic community. Also, we donít have a target market because that would exclude certain types of people, and we believe that a coffee shop should be inclusive."

Along with a growing number of restaurants, cafes, and bars in western Tokyo, Benís is helping the cityís arts community gain the exposure that would be denied them by the expensive and elitist world of Tokyoís established art galleries. Further, it is encouraging to see Watson and Workman doing more than simply accommodating art Ė a first-class quick and mobile art show capacity is afforded by a metal molding and suspension wire system which is far superior to what many of the cityís snobbiest gallerists get away with. Finally, the shows at Benís seem to be getting better and better.

Although Ohbayashiís exhibition may be a little uneven, for example in the way some of her efforts look labored while others are wonderfully lyrical, the artistís personal and human pictures (and the atmosphere of the venue) are engaging enough to make the show well worth a visit.

Notes: Until Dec 17, 1999 Ben's Cafe (3202-2445). For a complete schedule of events at the space visit benscafe.com.
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