To Western eyes, the Japanese painter ob’s work might immediately invite the comparison to anime or manga figures, with their telltale enlarged shapes and features. But for ob, who made her name in online communities that specialized in sharing this type of work, the style is more of a vehicle for her to communicate with other artists who work in a similar style. For her show “Your, My, Story,” that opened last month at Perrotin New York, ob produced nine large-scale paintings displaying dream-scapes representing both ob's inner and virtual life. For Listening Scent two figures stand almost apocalyptically alone among skyscrapers, while in Access a waif-like figure draws her hand through a fountain. It’s through these fragile, blurred scenes that ob works through the implications of subjects like online life, girlhood, and folklore.
Putting the raw aesthetics aside, ob’s body of work speaks to the convergence of the virtual and the physical world that is responsible for our lopsided political landscape and increasingly isolated lives. As ob herself elucidates in the interview, the works' subject matter are drawn from a variety of both virtual and real experiences, from paintings being set in the world of anime shows, to characters that depict scenes from ob’s life. To ob and a similar generation that came to age in the early '00s, video games, social media, and physical reality are blurred into an indistinguishable slew.
It’s a slew that birthed and coalesced around specific communities that ob has lived most of her life in, ones that produced similar aesthetics, making ob’s work is something of an output of a system. Referred to as the “SNS Generation (social network service generation),” ob and these others her age with similar interests frequented online communities such as pixiv, where other artists would show and share work with each other. It was on pixiv, that she organized her first widely influential group show in 2010, entitled “wassyoi,” which is a Japanese word that means encouragement. Eventually ob’s work drew the attention of Takashi Murakami’s studio Kaikai Kiki, a studio which she continues to work out of.
On the occasion of her show at Perrotin, I spoke with ob about girlhood, Japan, and the implications of the SNS generation.
What were some of the inspirations for your show at Perrotin New York?
ob: I have largely been inspired by situations that force introspection, such as the disconnection from direct connection with others due to Covid-19. Stories can be a powerful tool to help us move forward, in the way that they help us to accept difficult situations and become a filter for our minds to alleviate fear. The exhibition title “Your, My, Story” evokes the individual stories of you, me, and many others. I would be grateful if you could find a story in the exhibition that helps you face reality.
How much does nostalgia, melancholia, or adolescence play in these works? They are often behind these sort of dreamy, or milky filters.
"The milky filter" creates a state of uncertainty in my paintings, wavering between the real world and the inner world, as if the characters in the painting are wavering between childhood and adulthood. When I am painting, memories of the past automatically come back to me, as if in a dream or meditation, but at the same time I am aiming to create a completed image that can only be seen in the future. Therefore, I experience a mixture of past, present, and future in my daily life. Nostalgia, melancholia, and adolescence; these time-travelling emotional fluctuations form the basis of my paintings.
Do the figures have minimal mouths for a reason, or is it stylistic?
I feel that if a character has an expression, it makes the painting more assertive and leaves less space for interpretation, so inevitably I tend not to draw a mouth. I do not limit the details of the story in order to create a rich narrative through the memories and ideas of the viewer. The mouth is a part of the body where the consciousness of speaking flows, but I painted the eyes as if they were a gateway to the inner world. I sometimes feel as if the large pupils of the eyes are like the moon or a tunnel, symbolizing death and rebirth.
Are these self-portraits in a way?
I feel that the characters in my paintings are vessels, like puppets, that reflect the imagination of the viewer. It is neither me nor self-portrait, even though it reflects my own experience.
How do you view “girlhood?” Is it an important topic to you?
It is an important subject if it is in childhood. The psychological developmental stage of the child influences my artwork. Children grow up following important steps, but even as we get older we sometimes have to revisit unresolved childhood issues. It led me to the idea that being older is not the only way to be an adult. Also, in terms of the character I draw, I don't think of her as a human girl, but rather as an unhuman being from folktales and myths.
Do you think that the idea of girlhood in Japan is very specific, and different from the idea of girlhood here in America?
In Japan, the boundary between child and adult is ambiguous. Instead of being trained to debate and establish oneself as in Western education, we are trained to be cooperative. I feel that without independence, it is easier to lose the goal in life.
Are the works at Perrotin set in any specific “place” or “setting?”
My painting images are formed by a combination of all kinds of images, from the scenes of films and animes to my own photographs and past paintings.
How is your work connected to manga? Are you creating characters, similar to how people create them for a manga?
Basically, we create characters in order to guide the interpretation of the paintings. Painting is a static medium, but I often wish to incorporate the language of moving images from manga, anime and film into my paintings.
Do you think manga, anime, and similar types of illustration are used as a way of communicating with other people? And this influences the way the work looks, and how it’s often people depicting themselves in various forms. I’m thinking of how many forums or message boards are organized around people sharing work. Which is a rare experience in the physical world.
Visual arts are used as a communication tool in Japan, both online and offline. The Comic Market (known as Comiket) is the biggest event held at the International Exhibition Centre in Japan, and it can be better described as a festival. In the field of fine art, the trend is slightly different. There are alternative spaces all over the place. There are also some artist-run spaces, and they are active as studios and galleries.
Did you start your practice by posting work on similar communities, like pixiv? Can you tell me about that experience?
When I started painting seriously in 2006, I presented my paintings on my personal website and blog. It was a small community where only my friends at school and on the internet saw, that was fun too. Afterwhen I started to post on Pixiv, it broadened my world as many people could see my artworks.
I went to an art high school but in Japanese schools, illustrative paintings are often commented negatively by teachers. I held an exhibition with my friend I met on pixiv, which was a big trigger for me to become an artist. If this situation had not happened and I had still wanted to paint with illustrative expression, I would have been alone.
These spaces seem interesting because they are both intimate, personal, but also able to be viewed by many people simultaneously. How do you think posting your work on these boards influences the work?
It has been interesting to see the use of hashtags to describe the style of paintings. For example, with the hashtag "rain", there would be pictures of rain. If you draw rain a lot, you can be influential in that hashtag. It makes us think about our own originality.
In my case, when I searched with the hashtags "painting" and "art", I was able to find illustrative paintings. it was encouraging for me to know that I wasn't alone at that time when I was establishing my style.
Nowadays, Instagram and Twitter are more influential than pixiv, for those SNS the search results for hashtags are huge because they include more than illustrations. It has become more accessible for our artwork to be found by many people but has also made it harder to use keywords to find the exact information we want.
Do you have an idea of what direction you would like to take your work in? What’s next?
I would like to paint a view similar to children's literature, depicting an encounter with children’s inquisitiveness. I would like to continue thinking about the way of the human being through painting characters that are wavering between adulthood and childhood.