Kenta Cobayashi, EVERYTHING_2

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Newfave Books (here). Softcover with elastic binding, 80 pages, with 74 color reproductions. These are no texts or essays included. In an edition of 500. Design by Tadahiro Gunji. Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: One of the unexpected challenges that 21st century photographers face is what to do with the proliferation of software features in photo-editing programs like Photoshop. With each successive release, the options become more and more powerful, and yet, harnessing that power to build a unique personal vision remains elusive – just using the available features doesn’t magically lead to a durably interesting artistic voice.

The Japanese photographer Kenta Cobayashi has placed himself on the leading edge of this technological wave, and worked to adapt the torrent of new functionality into his own style. His 2016 photobook EVERYTHING_1 (reviewed here) brashly announced his arrival on the scene, transforming blurs, smears, and gestural mark making into an energetic visual vocabulary of youth-infused distortion, and in a certain way, Cobayashi used “everything” that was available at that time to disrupt his images. His new photobook EVERYTHING_2 comes along a handful of years later, and of course, the definition of “everything” has continued to change, and Cobayashi’s approach has evolved along with it.

In this new body of work, Cobayashi begins with nightlife snapshots and Japanese urban city views, with the requisite bright lights (some with squiggled light drawings), beer cans, vaping, convenience stores, and other nocturnal gatherings and entertainments of the young. A few catwalk shots allude to Cobayahsi’s recent work in fashion, particularly recurring street-style hoodies and casualwear. And he’s also added a sprinkling of images of dated (or obsolete) technology, from a Mac Classic II to friends mugging with CDs and payphones, and some sleek car hoods and headlights, these details broadly alluding to the never ending march of technology.

But these subjects are only partially legible in Cobayahsi’s end images. Instead they form a kind of backdrop, on top of which Cobayashi energetically improvises, using software manipulation to generate gestures, marks, and effects that break down and cover the source imagery. Each photograph provides its own inspiration, and Cobayashi tunes his disruptive approaches to the cues the image provides. In his hands, reality deliberately unravels, disassembling into a techno-expressive visual cacophony, where representation is effusively undermined, ultimately falling toward abstraction.

One the most striking effects Cobayashi employs in EVERYTHING_2 is one where he starts with a strip of pixels and then drags it across the surface of the image (not unlike the digital equivalent of a Gerhard Richter squeegeed paint smear), creating a ribbon of striped color that twists around, and in some cases bends back on itself with dimensionality. He grabs these rows of color from LED signs, building facades, a polka-dotted shirt, a pink ponytail, a taxi brakelight, and even SpongeBob Squarepants, and then pulls the gestures around his compositions, almost like graffiti tags atop his own artwork. The cover image is a layered nest of these vibrant ribbons with the supporting image removed, leaving just the woven stripes of abstract color.

A watery, blurred effect shows up in another group of works. Here overhead views of dense city streets and architectural studies seem to dissolve in place, the geometries of the city becoming fluid and impermanent, and in more gestural examples, the colors are swirled and mixed, losing all definition (with a vague echo of Lucas Samaras’ manipulated Polaroids from the 1970s). Other images find Cobyashi able to bring texture to these smears and slashes, the ribbons taking on pebbled surfaces and gelatinous depth like cake frosting. Still other effects break pictures down or blister them into topographical line drawings (split into color layers), create hollow see through ribbons, pile repeated gestures into stuttering feathery clusters, soften details into swooping wisps and billows, and then collapse combinations of all of these approaches into single frenzied compositions.

Photoshop enthusiasts might be tempted to play an identification game with Cobayashi’s techniques, perhaps seeing visual evidence of the smudge or liquefy effects, or trying to puzzle out how he used custom brushes, color channel mixing, rendered objects as textures or overlays, or other layered adjustments. But what’s more important is that the disparate techniques coalesce into an overall style, where gestural movement, mark making, and distortion change our experience of the night. Cobayashi’s visual field is bursting with interruption and distraction, so much so that we are prevented from a straightforward experience; instead, we step into an alternate reality, where images are a starting point for communicating an atmosphere or a mood.

When compared with EVERYTHING_1, Cobayashi’s second volume is a multitude of mores: more gestural and painterly, more densely marked and manipulated, more abstract, and more eye-poppingly colorful. In a sense, the passage of time has led to artistic amplification, or to an increase in mastery of the tools and the sophistication of their employ. The design of EVERYTHING_2 is similar to the first iteration, with full bleed images bound by an elastic band, but the printing here seems even more vibrant, the glossy colors exploding off the pages with more force than most photobooks we encounter. This is not a photobook you put down once you pick it up – the colors are too bold to ignore.

Cobayashi seems well aware that a progression is taking place in his photography, and that it is happening rapidly. Near the end of EVERYTHING_2, a cab races across our field of vision, becoming a fleeting blur, but in the background, the cover image from EVERYTHING_1 is pasted to a wall – the nesting of pictures is both a clever Easter egg for attentive readers to uncover and an acknowledgement that what was once fresh and new is quickly supplanted by something else. Here, Cobayashi cannibalizes himself, but the larger lesson is that surfing the cutting edge requires constant learning, rework, and adaptation. This new body of work feels mature and accomplished, less an experiment or a daring provocation than a four-year consolidation of constant improvement.

Collector’s POV: Kenta Cobayashi is represented by G/P Gallery in Tokyo (here). Cobayashi’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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