“The loss of innocence is fitting,” says Audrey Kawasaki about the mysterious women who make her artwork so alluring. The Los Angeles-based artist describes her characters as conflicted, an emotional Jekyll and Hyde if you will, torn between different impulses, desires and cultural expectations. Kawasaki herself knows about this in real life, having grown up in California immersed in the Japanese culture and traditions of her family, but the stories her artwork tells apply to any woman, or person, striving to understand their individual identity in a society that always tells them who they should be. PRØHBTD spoke with Kawasaki to learn more.
Your female characters are both beautiful and mysterious. When you paint them, do you imagine specific thoughts they might have at the moment you capture their expressions?
Yes, I do. The main focus of my work is the face and the subtleties of capturing a certain feel and expression. Sometimes her gaze is away from the viewer in a contemplative, self-reflecting way, but often she confronts the viewer with a direct stare or glance, as if to say, “I see you. I am here. I exist.” Within that are the various emotions and personalities she emanates, from a relaxed, passive, accepting, withdrawn, coy sensitiveness to direct, confrontational, seductive, alluring confidence, and all the grey areas in between.
So yes, for instance, if I am facing a painting about a girl who is saying a forever goodbye, I imagine that moment. I imagine her walking away. I imagine the feeling of knowing I would never see her again. Trying desperately to capture the image of her for the very last time, before she is gone, and becomes a memory, a ghost. Sometime I become so wrapped up that I have tears running down my face as I paint her. I like it when that happens.
One of my favorite paintings is As I Fall (main image above). The woman in the piece seems to be physically falling, but what deeper levels of meaning are inherent in the idea of a female falling backwards?
I made a piece with the same title back in 2008 (pictured here). I pictured her being decapitated, albeit in a symbolic way, facing her demise brought on to her by others and accepting herfate. As I Fall from 2016 stems from that, but it’s less about defeat and the lack to fight back. It’s about her choice and her will, unaffected by outside forces. It’s about her own personal inner struggles and letting them go and entrusting herself to the universe. Let the wind carry her and take her away. It’s an end to one thing, but a whole new beginning of something else.
Do you envision your characters as inherently good or deceptively dangerous?
Both, but more towards the latter. I imagine that, if she appeared in front of me, I would keep good distance. Her charm would be undeniable, and I’d be drawn to her, sure, but I’d rather watch and observe her from afar. I wouldn’t want to get entangled in her affairs. I think for me, as the artist who creates them, I like the idea that they are mysterious, secretive and difficult. Their intangibility makes for a good story and keeps me interested.
How would you define innocence within the narrative of your artistic world?
I think the loss of innocence is fitting. Initially my girls were younger, less experienced and more naive. I can’t put a specific age to them, but they were definitely on the cusp of emotional adolescence and coming of age, in the midst of facing the beginning of a blossoming womanhood and all the turmoils that come with it.
Personally, I was a teenager when I had my first so-called creative awakening. I was smack in the middle of a stormy adolescence. A lot of change was happening all at once, and it was difficult as hell, but with that came a clearer artistic vision and an urgency and purpose to create. During that time, I felt like I was really starting to connect with what I was making. It felt more personal and genuine. My painted characters started to surface and develop, and naturally they must have reflected myself and what I was experiencing.
Now I feel like my girls have matured over the years. Yes, they still have their weakness, fears, doubts and vulnerabilities, but they’ve come to terms with them and are more grounded and comfortable with themselves.
Images (left to right): Enchantress, It Was You, Lush, As I Fall, Fade to Blue, Forget Me Not, Under the Full Moon, Offering, Away, Wandering Star, Hasami and Charmer.
Do you see the women you create as real people or as characters a real person might dream of being?
I don’t see them as real people. To me they are like ghosts. Apparitions. An illusion. A day dream. An idea. I wouldn’t really want to encounter them in real life, let alone dream of becoming them. It’s nice to think that they are these mysterious ephemeral creatures that you can’t quite get a grasp on.
What do you see as different forms of feminine sexuality portrayed in your artwork?
Expressing sexuality in my work has always been integral. Growing up, I’ve been introverted, shy and self conscious; not wanting to offend, and careful to be polite. But in my drawings I had no problem being loud and vulgar, and I wasn’t afraid to show them to people either. I explored themes of lust and passion through my own experiences and through my painted girls. As an adult, as I started to show my work in galleries, I’ve realized how liberating it is to be able to examine and express sexuality in such a public way, especially being a female. In a way it gave me a sense of power and control over my own body and self.
In terms of specific forms of feminine sexuality in my work, I believe that my girls possess a sense of strength and independence of self and sex. But they also have a tinge of vulnerability and fragility that exposes them and creates a strange juxtaposition, which I believe a lot of women can relate to. So often, as girls, we are told right and wrong, or you shouldn’t do this or you shouldn’t feel that, but things are never black and white. There’s a whole array of greys in between, and I think it’s comforting to recognize and embrace them.
Several pieces feature flowers. Do the flowers represent a separate symbol, and does the symbolism interconnect with the women in thematic ways?
Flowers represent temporality. They are a reminder of the passing of time. How physical beauty and youth are impermanent. How all things will change and soon perish. My girls are the same. For now, there is a sense of timelessness and immortality because they don’t age like us. But they, too, at some point in time, will disintegrate and be destroyed along with the wood they are painted on. And like us, they will fade from memory.
There’s a Japanese phrase, “Mono No Aware.” It’s represents the awareness of impermanence and the gentle sadness and beauty of the transitory nature of things.
Your characters also tend to have gorgeous hairstyles. Do you research different hairstyles for your women, or do they all emerge organically from your mind?
Yes, they do emerge more organically. The hair is an extension of her and has its purpose of contributing to the feel of that particular work. If her hair is bundled up or tied, she might be more composed, contemplative and thoughtful. If her hair is loose and wild, the piece may be more about being fierce, passionate and emotional. Short bobs with bangs might represent youth and innocence.
You seem to paint more on wood panels than canvas. In what ways does wood help bring your characters to life?
Yes, to me, wood panels are much more inviting. It’s soft to the touch, and the organic wood grains and patterns make each piece unique. I often leave parts of the wood exposed, and that adds a natural element to the piece, a familiarity and warmth. I like to work with the wood grains and plan the image and composition with that in mind.
You grew up immersed in two cultures, American and Japanese. What are the benefits of a multi-cultural upbringing, and what struggles does this create in finding your own identity?
I am born and raised in Los Angeles, but my first language was Japanese, and I was immersed in the culture. I feel lucky to have been raised with Japanese TV, music, books, manga, food, etc. It played a huge role in who I am today, especially when it comes to my career. I wanted to be a manga artist when I was little, and that’s what made me draw constantly.
In terms of struggles, yes, when I was young, I did feel like I was pulled and tugged between the two cultures. Japan was and still is less liberal than California, so I did feel conflicted and sometimes rejected for being a little different and eccentric. I felt out of place at times and spent a considerable time on my own. But now looking back, I am grateful for it all.
David Jenison (email@example.com) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.