Time stands still in New York-based Milt Kobayashi's urban interiors, yet the expressive narrative flows and ebbs with a cadence of color and distinctive brushwork. While his subjects have remained constant, various influences have come to play in the thirty years he has pursued a highly successful career in fine art.
Kobayashi arrived in New York in 1977 to begin a career in illustration; soon he realized that his narrative style would not meet the constraints of commercial art. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a painting by Velazquez – the portrait of his long-time assistant Juan de Pareja (1650) – moved him to pursue fine art. From here he studied and was influenced by other masters such as Sargent, Chase, and Duvanek.
A third-generation Japanese-American, Milt Kobayashi masterfully blends the aesthetics of the east and the west. His work is reflective of the significant influence that the arts of Japan had on those working in Paris in the late 19th century. Artists such as Whistler, Bonnard, Vuillard and Toulouse-Lautrec embraced Japonism during this period. Like artists before him, Kobayashi was drawn to the traditions of Ukiyo-e wood block prints. Ukiyo-e, or "floating world", refers to the young culture that bloomed in cities like Edo, now Tokyo, in the 1700's. The prints depicted this urban lifestyle, scenes from the entertainment districts, beautiful courtesans and popular actors. Kobayashi's subjects, like those of the printmakers, capture the intrigue of urban life. His distinct style also adopts the compositional freedoms introduced by Ukiyo-e masters. Subjects are placed off center, silhouetted and cropped. There is light without shadows, flat areas of strong color, patterned surfaces and contrasting voids. Kobayashi has found a way to blend strong design aesthetic with an intimate characterization of his subject.
Urban life is central to Kobayashi's choice of subjects. "For inspiration, I will memorize scenes, store them in my memory and then distill them down to the most important elements. It may be a shadow, a scene from a movie, or the way light hits the face of a stranger walking down the street." In talking with students, he stresses Degas' belief that "relying on memory as opposed to copying a scene or event stimulates the creative process. In this manner, you only reproduce what has stuck with you, that is to say, the essential ... your memories and fantasies are freed from the tyranny which nature holds on them."
In his 2013 exhibition at Gallery Shoal Creek, Milt Kobayashi presents a collection of small works that continue the artist's focus on the female in her quiet world. A tonalist by nature, he has adopted a growing freedom in his use of color. Speaking of the current work, he says, "I am modeling my subjects with slightly more color, leaning towards a yellow palette. The use of broad bravura strokes has given way to tighter control and smaller movements in the brushwork." This newest work demonstrates the artist's growing interest in Nicholai Fechin, and the Russian-born painter's use of intense color and subtle modulation in portraying his figures. Like Fechin, the important thing is not the object painted, but how the canvas is filled through the filter of the artist's creative idea. Mastery of brushstrokes and vague use of detail are used to create intrigue – and in doing so Kobayashi has perfected his fine art of subtlety.