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Published February 8, 2024

Blurry Blueprints: Minami Kobayashi and Adrianne Rubenstein’s duo show at Et al. etc.

By Daniel Sharp

Daniel Sharp (b. 1994, Grand Rapids, MI) is a Detroit-based artist, writer, musician, and interdisciplinary organizer. They are the Managing Director of DSCS, a community strategy consultancy for visual artists, institutions, and creative technology companies.

Installation image, I spell a word to free you, Minami Kobayashi and Adrianne Rubenstein. Image courtesy Et al. etc.

I believe in the power of take-homes from the gallery. A book, a pamphlet, a card, a poem keep the conversation going. They pop back up, often surprisingly, in the bottom of my bag after a trip. They remind me of the work I saw, I loved, and the thoughts I should follow. Art becomes more than a photo on my phone. It transforms into a thread to unspool in a time where I am used to seeing dozens of photos, videos, and worlds in a matter of seconds.

The experimental linguist and writer Suzette Haden Elgin once wrote:

Friend, your mind has betrayed you
On the back of your eyes
It shines lies and says “It’s real! It’s real!”
Go out and die for it!

This excerpt came to me from the press release for Minami Kobayashi and Adrianne Rubenstein’s recent exhibition, I spell a word to free you at Et al. etc. Directly below Elgin’s text, the press release counters with a question: “But what are we to do, besides follow our mind, our heart, forward into the wilderness?”

Adrianne Rubenstein, Still Life (oil on canvas, 60 x 72 inches, 2023), image courtesy Et al. etc.

Take, for example, my newfound settled reality of never bearing children. The realization had grown in gravity the weeks before I visited the show. I had spent the holidays with my family and two-year-old nephew. He asked me to read to him, put his socks on, play with plastic cars, and eat sliced apples. We built towers from my own set of childhood blocks and learned to use a toilet. And yet a melancholy would rise up every now and then. This is not my calling, I’d think. I love him. I’d sit here for hours with him. But I just can’t see myself doing this for my own child.

My path feels uncertain as it moves into the unknown of unbearing. Will life feel full or never full enough? What even is enough?

Minami Kobayashi, White cat doll (oil on canvas, 19.70 x 19.70 inches, 2023), image courtesy Et al. etc.

Kobayashi’s five works and Rubenstein’s four depict a reflection of their separate worlds with out-of-reach details and restricted information. In the work of both artists, the viewer is often placed in a position of never-fully-knowing-what’s-going-on. Filling in the blanks is up to the audience—much like my own understanding of how I’ll fill my life up without children.

That’s why a teddy bear, propped in the crook of a contrapposto’d arm, felt like a release from the expectation of a child-rearing future. While my Midwest eyes see a bear, the title of Minami Kobayashi’s White cat doll considers an alternative read. Kobayashi’s plushie, brushed with pale pinks, blues, and yellows above a vivid orange undercoat, offered me a moment of release that I didn’t realize I needed. Kobayashi crops out the person cuddling the furry stuffed animal. We only see a teaser of dark hair cut shoulder length (one small strand is braided), their brown hand, their blue-and-pink checkered buttoned blouse, and a sliver of neck. Could the depiction be a casual snapshot? A poised position? Maybe we aren’t meant to know.

Kobayashi’s The blue car in Ventimiglia re-frames the viewer in the seat of a car. Bright hands with an upturned pinky are placed on a black steering wheel and sit below our view of another car heading right. An elderly woman sits in the driver’s seat with her two dogs (likely a Borzoi and a Pug) that ride up front. She could be traveling down the road that arcs across the right edge of the painting or moving toward another road unseen by the viewer. Are the vehicles hurtling toward one another, destined to crash? Or is the woman simply gently driving by at an intersection? The vivid pinks, blues, and yellows keep their secrets. A present uncertainty carries into an uncertain future.

Minami Kobayashi, The blue car in Ventimiglia (oil on canvas, 39.40 x 39.40 inches, 2023), image courtesy Et al. etc.

Split by the prism of nostalgia, I see my nephew across both works. He’s clutching his Winnie-the-Pooh, repeating his favorite phrase—“just one more minute”—when it’s time to stop playing. I see him in the car seat, waving goodbye. Resolutions, intentions, and decisions weigh on my mind. Kobayashi’s work asks me to consider my direction on children again. What will my life bring without them? Can I accept my relationship to raising kids by proxy and not biologically? “But what are we to do, besides follow our mind, our heart, forward into the wilderness,” the exhibition’s text reminds me. Hard truths generate a soft future.

In contrast, Rubenstein’s more abstracted approach with works like Boats in Harbor and Still Life depict details with blended dimensions. Boats in Harbor places the viewer in—possibly—a colorful room adorned with flowers, curly cues, and a bundle of corn with blue husks. A window adjusted toward the top left of the canvas suggests a view of five red boats sailing against a pink sky. Closer inspection, however, blurs what was perceived. Maybe there’s six boats. Seven, even. Pink sky roughly chops into the sea. Maybe it’s not a window, but a painting on a wall. Maybe they’re not blue corn husks after all.

Still Life is even more flat and more deceptive than Boats in Harbor. A collection of objects in varying degrees of clarity float against a pink, cream, and tangerine background. Some objects are presented as simply their outline; others blend into one another. Nearly half are black and indigo circles and semicircles, evenly scattered across the canvas. Three toward the bottom left corner feature bright green outlines. Others are unique, like a set of teal disks, a yellow tulip, and a black bromeliad. Foreground flips and becomes background. This malleability offers a counterpoint when compared to more formal abstract expressionism from, say, Lee Krasner. The painted objects resist leitmotif, resist pattern. Rubenstein reminds me of dazzle camouflage, where World War One boats were painted in geometric patterns—sometimes black and white, other times multicolored—to obfuscate the ships’ course in the eyes of an enemy periscope.

The blueprint’s blurry. What was once thought as still is, in fact, a set of moving variables. Rubenstein opens up something new. You’re only twenty-nine years old, I think. Making “final” decisions about children right now is too strict, too deterministic. What’s clear now may cloud later. I can adapt when things change. It releases a bit of pressure. My shoulders relax.

Adrianne Rubenstein, Boats in Harbor (oil on canvas, 36 x 24 inches, 2023), image courtesy Et al. etc.

As I left, I picked up an Ursula K. Le Guin book from et al. books—which shifted from the back to the front of Et al. etc. when the gallery moved to its next door neighbor on Mission Street in 2023. My choice: The Word for World is Forest (another take-home). I read it front to back the next day: while colonizing a new planet, an alternative human society unknowingly teaches the planet’s peaceful species violence and murder. Embracing curiosity, rather than imposing the ideals and values on another, helps avoid catastrophe.

The threads of Kobayashi, Rubenstein, Elgin and Le Guin all tie together. They ask us: how does the present bend the future? Can we change the course, or is destiny just an escalator? These artists offer us options. Kobayashi and Rubenstein’s pieces withhold, deter, and deflect. Curiosity offers a way in and a way out. Elgin and Le Guin appear to agree. Outdated belief systems head brashly forward, blinding us to wonder, insight, and the joy of the unknown. Instead, figuring things out as they come adjusts for reality’s curvatures. Follow the heart into the wilderness.

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