Akiko Kinugawa paints four things: dogs, cats, humans and something that’s between humans and furry animals. She paints her subjects–especially the humans and “in-betweens”–with distinctive long faces reminiscent of Modigliani portraits. She has a very focused range of subjects and she has a very specific reason for painting them as well.
Trying to understand the relationship between humans and animals
-Animals, specifically dogs and cats, often appear in your paintings.
I guess I like animals and I had pets growing up. I’ve also always looked at stray cats in my neighborhood and empathized with them for the hard lives they lead. But even if I think about their feelings, I can’t understand them, which is fine. But even if I don’t understand them, I still want to confront them and paint them. Not understanding them, I just paint them. When I paint animals, I’m recalling and remembering actual dogs and cats that I’ve known.
-Why do you paint in-between faces?
I’ve been painting in-between beings for a long time. I like animals, but I didn’t know how to deal with the relationship between animals and humans. Animals live in a human world; it’s already decided how animals should be treated. I felt like I had to do something about this. But for me the answer was not going to be found in giving up eating meat or something. When I was conflicted and torn about this relationship, an “in-between” being came to mind as sort of an ideal. I had this wish for something in-between. It’s very abstract. It exists in a different place. I thought: “I like animals, maybe I can combine humans and animals and give it long hair.” I realize that this sounds immature and simple. But if someone looked at my painting and could get a sense of this feeling, that would be enough. That’s why I paint in-between faces.
This in-between face painting is my personal favorite in this exhibit. The other faces were difficult to get right. This one was very easy to paint. Eyes, noses and mouths are all constants in all the paintings. But these parts alone are nothing. I have to work with the faces until I get them just right. In the process of painting, these simple facial features transform into a face and we face each other.
-Are the human faces also based on people you know?
They don’t necessarily have to do with my private life, and I’m not using specific people as models, but humans are the closest living beings around me, so I draw them. Part of me is in them, and parts of the people around me are in them. There aren’t strong feelings behind the human paintings. I have a clearer reason for painting cats and dogs. I just keep painting human faces until I feel like we are facing each other.
I don’t understand people, and I don’t understand the relationship between people and animals. That’s why I continue to paint them.
- Why do you paint faces?
These paintings are just paint. They’re nothing. But just by depicting faces, people empathize with the paintings’ subjects. I found that interesting, and decided to paint faces.
Getting people to question if there is consciousness or not
-At first glance, your paintings’ faces are full of sadness, but at the same time, they have inexplicable expressions.
I think feelings and sentiments are important. When asked why humans are so important, there are people who say that humans are logical. So what? There also used to be animal behavior specialists who would say that animals act according to instincts alone. But if you’ve lived with animals, then you know that they are fully aware and have conscious minds and feelings. Through paintings, I can give them their consciousness that’s so widely denied. Just by painting faces, people think there’s consciousness there when it’s just paint. This sheds light onto how anything could be present or vacant–how ambiguous consciousness is. Is it there or not? The ambiguity of the expressions on the faces I paint makes viewers wonder whether the animals’ consciousness is there or not. It doesn’t matter if I claim and urge people that there’s consciousness there; people have to question it themselves.
-Does this ambiguity about consciousness relate to the title of this exhibit “There are, there aren’t”?
Yes, it does. It doesn’t matter if you can’t tell what’s there, if you can see that there’s something there. I can’t tell people, my audience, that there’s something there, but I can make people question it.
Darkness doesn’t have to carry negative connotations
-Your paintings could be described as dark.
I don’t think darkness has to equal negativity. Everything doesn’t have to be positive. Observing animals, you really get a sense of how hard simply living is. It makes you think that maybe darkness is not that bad. Maybe happiness and brightness is not the norm. It’s probably the same for humans.
Not everything has to have a meaning. Darkness is something everyone has inside of them. Even though it’s treated as something that shouldn’t be brought out, it’s there; there’s no reason to deny it. I think I have this attitude towards darkness, because of my thoughts on animals. I grew up in a rural area where stray animals were killed pretty easily, which got me to start thinking about our relations with animals.
But I’m not trying to paint hardship, and I don’t think darkness is that bad. I think the faces I paint are beautiful and when I’m painting them, I face them and they feel right. They’re comforting.
Picturing and painting scenes from books
-Why do you continue painting faces?
I usually don’t have a clear idea of what I want to paint next. But depending on how I’m feeling, I paint whatever or whomever I want to face at that time. But sometimes I do get into a cycle of painting one after another, rotating my subjects. After finishing one, I still don’t know or understand, so I paint another one. I think I’m done when I finish one face, but I still don’t get it. I don’t get how to interact with animals. Even when painting human faces, I’m contemplating the same things.
But I do get bored, and then I paint stories from books. I like novels, and I can imagine that I am a character in a story when I’m reading, but I can’t imagine facing and standing face-to-face with characters in a story while reading. But I can do that when I’m painting, and I paint what I imagine scenes in a particular story would be like. I’ve painted scenes from Endo Shusaku’s books. I like how he writes about animals. I have painted characters interacting with animals in these books. The animals aren’t depicted as very happy. They are neither strong wild beasts nor cute creatures, but they have feelings and conscious minds.
-Are there any paintings inspired by novels in this exhibit?
This one is from a book about a dog held in a facility. It’s not purely based on the book. I paint these sometimes and return to faces. Sometimes, I paint just for fun, but I don’t like painting just for fun, for no reason. I paint, so I don’t forget. When I entered university, student life was simply fun. Living alone in the city, I had little interaction with animals, and was just having fun. But I didn’t think I should forget about animals.
Interviewed on March 9, 2013, text by Makiko Arima
“There are, there aren’t”
Date: February 27 – March 10, 2013
Place: Art Center Ongoing
Address: 1-8-7 Kichijoji Higashicho, Musashino, Tokyo