The best of writing about art seems to be somewhere far from the reduction of signs into meaning and some sort of scientific essentialism. Art historians often weave a tale, which has at its center the deciphering of symbols, establishing markers, and influences.
Yet, sometimes art is simply beautiful, perhaps for you it is a fluid lake of color in an abstract painting, or an impossibly elegant gravity defying modernist home. While for those naturalist lovers, a study of the nape of a woman’s neck, parsed out in tiny lines of pencil. Therefore, here we are, to tell another story, but also to find out more about a world we know nothing of, and in this sense, we express a longing for a more symbiotic relationship with art. Let us begin with the work of the young Japanese artist Naomi Okubo whose work has a certain trickery, to which we willingly succumb.
Naomi makes work that is often achingly pretty, but it has a quiet incisiveness to it. This dialogue bridges the gap between contemporary culture and the mythologies and fairytales of traditional cultures that still have a presence.
One thinks immediately of the series of girls entering houses accompanied by wolves, which clearly has a connection to the fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood, a story of great deal of imaginative and metaphorical power. For this reference alone, she has peaked my interest.
Naomi Okubo Girls Walking with Wolves
Nevertheless, we should see that Naomi purposefully uses such archaic cultural stories to show how such narratives and images have a significant impact on women’s feelings about their own self worth, their bodies, and their place in society.
The use of layering materials, process, and decorative elements is at once charming and evocative of the overdressing of womanliness, the constant accouterment meant to improve one’s exterior.
The idea of a nested configuration began with her collaborative works with Zeit Magazine, for the thematic issue Living with Greens. Naomi used prepared images from the magazine (of furniture) to create her painting, which were in turn featured in the magazine.
The nested system would continue to emerge as an important way of working, and the recent work: This is not My Life responds to the way in which the visual culture of mass media often forms our way of looking, and presenting themselves. The work was recently featured as an installation in Naomi’s solo exhibit at Gallery Momo.
The installation functioned as a showroom, paintings hung on the wall, furnishings and greens, with photos and paintings that function a metonymy of sorts, revealing the staged nature of editorialized visual culture.
Naomi Okubo Girls Just Want to be Flowers
RB: Naomi, please tell me about your series Girls want to be like Flowers? I think perhaps there is a great deal of pressure on women to achieve physical perfection, and too much emotional and real time spent on this, rather than developing a skill or passion, tell me more please about this beautiful but complex picture?
Naomi: Yes, this is a correct assessment, while gender seems more fluid these days and there is more equity such as same sex marriage I see that in fact women and girls still present a primarily girlish image on social media. It seems to me that the world is changing and yet so many people seem stuck on old ideals and types. The omnipresence of these images can really affect one’s sense of self worth, we start devaluing ourselves, and I start thinking should I lose weight or something like that. The power of this onslaught is considerable and affects us all, in its excess. To express this extravagance I depicted a flurry of color, decorative elements, and florals.
RB: Are there any personal events that have shaped your personal and or artistic outlook? You mention the way you got out of the realm of beauty and fashion as a tool of validation, and began reading feminist writing and even art history, which changed your outlook?
Magazine # 6
Naomi: Many of my artistic concepts grew from my own adolescent and my experience of the pressure to be attractive. I was teased and at one point changed my appearance, and people stated to treat me better. I decided to get out of the realm and into my own mind and after I read John Berger’s Way of Seeing and various feminist texts, I began to understand the negative feelings I had about myself. My work uses personal experiences to connect with larger social problems related to gender.
RB: The personal is political! What’s it like to be a woman artist today in Japan?
Naomi: While there are more women artists now than the previous generation, there are still many barriers for women in the arts. About 70 % of students in my university program –oil painting were women, perhaps because it is a low paying job, and men generally are encouraged by their families to pursue higher paying and status positions. Whereas women are more encouraged to go into the field, and yet if you wish to seriously pursue your career there is no a great deal of formal support, and there should be more. However, as well we see many artists working collaboratively regardless of gender within their own circles.
Camping, Window Display
RB: I understand you began your way of working after seeing a fantastic window display in NYC at Christmas time. How did you come to combine painterly depiction of illustration composition with collage views in your work? In addition, can you tell me more about the process?
Naomi: I was very interested in the dimension of the window display: the background was painted to create an illusionistic depth. In front of the background, some objects, ornaments, and mannequins with beautiful clothes were arranged. The window was covered by two-dimensional illustrations. All of this came together to create a complication dimension and this approach is use din my work to express my own experience, and resonate with my viewers as well.
The work begins as a digital collage and is finished by hand. I set the self-timer of my camera, followed by the creation of a new image using my portraits and other images corrected from magazines, advertisements and online. Then I print out the image on an over-head projector sheet, and transcribe the outline of an image on a cotton-covered panel. The final piece is finished by hand.
RB: Why are the women turned away in the pictures? They deny interaction, and perhaps this can be a form of resistance, but also a nod to the way in which often, the gaze is not reciprocal.
Naomi: At a first glance, my paintings are just “beautiful” and “cute,” but they have a cautionary tale, e.g. problems are always covered by beautiful images in our society. The turned faces women are the key to read my paintings, as the only negative image, the posture of the women evokes the problems of objectification, and the violence of the gaze, seen in portraits of women throughout the history of art.