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Art Department

Yamashita Finalist for National Portrait Award

Kumi Yamashita [AR ’94] creates works of breathtaking solubility and delicacy, but there’s something truly solid about being a finalist in the OBPC Exhibition.

Kumi Yamashita’s portrait of her niece Mana was built painstakingly of tiny bits and pieces on a simple, white-painted wooden panel. It is “drawn,” for lack of a better word, intricately, on this white ground with gray-scale dots and lines made up of thousands of tiny nails and a single, unbroken sewing thread. The portrait, from a series, if such a thing can be believed, is called Constellation: Mana. The remarkable picture is a finalist in the triennial Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition (OBPC), a national portrait competition. It will hang in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
from March 23 through February 23 of next year.

According to the Smithsonian, the OBPC is “the first national portrait competition in the United States, asks artists to create a portrait from a living individual with whom they have had direct contact. Artists may use any medium.”

Wendy Wick Reaves is interim director of the museum. “The vision of Virginia Outwin Boochever,” she said, “was to increase awareness about portraiture as a vibrant art form,” said “I think that this installation will dazzle people with the wide variety of materials used to make portraits.”

It may be impossible to get to D.C., but Yamashita’s work can be seen online. Believe it: it would be criminal not to visit her site and experience her virtuosity.  There, simple base forms are made to interact with light to create a new images in shadow, the “real” art works. Patches of denim, which are manufactured using criss-crossing light blue and dark blue threads, are stripped by Yamashita of one or the other, here and there, until a portrait emerges. She takes lettering — such as the raised portions of credit cards — places it behind a sheet of paper and rubs it with crayon, creating marks that add up portraits that are part contour and part type. In the work on display, she doesn’t make the images directly so much as she alters the meaning, lighting and purpose of things ‘til images appear, as if by magic. Yamashita doesn’t paint or draw or sculpt so much as she transforms. Her work is as much about the becoming and ending of things as it is about the resulting image. Yamashita’s work comes as close as the plastic arts can get to Shakespeare’s description of the magic of the poet’s pen, which “gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name.”

Perhaps Shakespeare is the wrong writer to reference. The artist herself seems to identify with playwright Samuel Beckett, of whom she has done a series of portraits. Her attraction to Beckett, the author of such theater as Happy Days, Act Without Words, Krapp’s Last Tape, Endgame and, of course, Waiting for Godot is not hard to understand. It is easy to see the granularity in both Samuel Beckett and Kumi Yamashita, the one forging words and the other objects, creating works at play with the fragility of perception, works that show how forms break down and coalesce again as other things, works whose meanings are paradoxically both illusory and concrete:

time she stopped
sitting at her window
quiet at her window
only window
facing other windows
other only windows
all eyes
all sides
high and low
time she stopped

— Samuel Beckett, from Rockaby

Yamashita graduated from Cornish in 1994, and holds a master’s degree from the Glasgow School of Art in the U.K. Her works are shown all over the world. She lives in New York City.

The OBPC Exhibition is at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, in Washington, D.C., from March 23, 2013 - February 23, 2014

IMAGE: Kumi Yamashita, Constellation: Mana.


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