Painter Melanie Kobayashi talks about unlearning to paint at the Baron Gallery

Melanie Kobayashi in her studio, dancing in the moment

Melanie Kobayashi has a long pointer with a sharp end in case anyone in the audience at the Baron Gallery gets out of hand. It’s a joke and yet there’s a weird resonance to the story of Kobayashi’s process and the mostly internal obstacles she’s had to overcome—again and again.

The big one she names is “guilt”, which takes the form of ideas about art she encountered in her studies at the University of Toronto, Simon Fraser University, and two weeks at Emily Carr. Her Powerpoint charts the on-going arguments between figurative and conceptual, material and idea, paint and installation. She reminds us of how confusing it was to be in art schools in the 1980s. 

And how exciting. 

It is through this constant and tumultuous back and forth that Kobayashi came to her present way of painting.

There is evidence of a mind at work here, and a serious one at that. Nothing child-like about it, for all its seeming freedom and ease. Even if I hadn’t had the privilege of a visit to her studio a few years back and several long conversations about painting, I’d know there was revision going on. One senses the long periods of looking between bouts of applying paint.

Kobayashi begins her presentation with a slide of one of her paintings next to one by Marla Olmstead, the New York wunderkind whose abstract canvasses began to attract attention when she was as young as four. Despite the controversy surrounding the authenticity of the child’s paintings, there is the recurring question of how we lose the direct simplicity most of us had as mark makers and how we can work our way back to it.

I’m not sure there is any way “back,” nor would I want one. The way is always forward, somehow, even as one reclaims—what? Innocence? No. Spontaneity? Certainly, but no amount of wishing or hoping or large gestural brush strokes or splattering will get us back to age five.

Yes, there is joy in these paintings, but there’s nothing facile about them, no matter how off-hand Kobayashi is about her process. These are playful works by a serious painter, and they are on view at the Baron Gallery through July 15.

Kobayashi will be giving her artist talk again this Sunday, July 8 at 1:00 pm followed by a talk by Dr. Paul G. Swingle called “Art and the Brain,” in which he discusses neurology and artist’s block.

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