Kaoru Arima: FAUST IN MARIENBAD, by Rosen Green at Green Gallery

By Shane McAdams

August 3, 2023

A gripping connection is made when Kaoru Arima’s portraits along the Green Gallery’s long, marquee wall meet our eyes. Their gazes are piercing, event haunting. Their manner is expressive, and the paint application juicy and loose. They flirt for a second with the legacies of soul capturers like Alice Neel, David Hockney, and Max Beckman. However, as time is spent with each individual 25 x 20 inch-portrait, their individuality begins to dissolve. And as soon as it does, the presence of the portraitist begins to grow in its place. It does this so incrementally, and so reciprocally, that it seems to address a deeper psychological phenomenon about the relationship between artists and subjects in general. 

Take any one of the larger portraits in the show: Movie Theater, for instance, cuts a smashing profile of a dark-eyed woman sculpted from a network of loose, loaded, multi-colored acrylic paint strokes. But as we approach her, she’s less-and-less there. The composition, the painting, and the surface slowly take the place of any her-ness that was there originally. The painting deconstructs itself in front of our eyes. Arima’s intentional retention of a thin strip of raw canvas at the top and bottom of each of these portraits confirms his interest in dismantling the structural vocabulary of painting. These peeks behind the painted curtain remind us that the marks and strokes are mere conventions; no more that superficial skins hiding a more basic interior. 

Physically deeper, perhaps, but not emotionally. Arima’s sitters sacrifice their emotional souls, and eventually their bodies as well. They leave us with an artist though. This dynamic is most strongly felt in the larger portraits, though 3, 7-inch x 5-inch portraits get at it in their own way. If the larger portraits dissolved, these smaller works are pre-dissolved; they’re barely there from the outset. Yet the slightest residue of a subject remains before paint takes over, and eventually gives way to raw canvas, never letting the illusion of subjective humanity take hold.

Arima’s exhibition through Sept. 2 at Green Gallery, which happens to be titled “FAUST IN MARIENBAD, by Rosen Green,” actually represents four distinct bodies of work. In addition to the portraits, the show includes a series of five inkjet prints on canvas that are distinctly their own thing but are concerned with similar concepts. Like the paintings, these prints of vegetation and other natural imagery bear a top and bottom register of exposed canvas. In the case of the prints that canvas maintains just a touch of painterly impasto. The digital images making up each composition are overlaid and misaligned slightly revealing a subtle patterning within the organic noise. By doing this Arima structurally redeems the randomness of the subject as surely as he eradicates order in the portraits. All of it presumes to expose the conventional framework behind the subject matter, and subject matter in general. 

The meta-analysis is less clear in two slightly more conventional graphite-and-watercolor portraits, as well as an earlier work on a Japanese newspaper broadside. The fresh and expressive portraits provide context for Arima’s painting methods if they don’t hint at the eventual intention to deconstruct the basic elements of his craft. File these other works away as anticipatory curiosities to what would eventually come. The later work, those stunning portraits, are all from that past eight years, the earliest dating from 2015. They’ll leave an impression on you, before they fall apart and stop leaving an impression on you … only to leave you thinking about what it means to create a self, to create an artificial self in its place, and then to dismantle it all piece-by-piece.