Up close and life size

Sep. 14, 2013 @ 10:29 AM

The first detail a visitor notices in Tim Okamura’s large-scale portraits are the eyes, which at times invite and challenge the viewer. One also might be struck by the striking physical presence of the portraits (primarily women), and the almost hidden details of modern urban life.

Joseph Jordan points to the hands in Okamura’s painting “Stay Strong,” one of 17 paintings in the new exhibit “This Story Has Not Yet Been Told …” at the Sonja Hayes Stone Center. In these paintings, “the hands are always strong and outsized,” and “markedly placed so they’re not in the background,” Jordan said.
In the painting, two women stand in front of a building in Brooklyn, N.Y. One looks straight at the viewer, the other into the distance. “These are not people who are shying away,” Jordan, the curator of this show and director of the Sonja Haynes Center for Black Culture and History, said of these paintings. “They look straight at you. They have confidence. … They challenge the world.”
This exhibit of large-size portraits opens the Stone Center’s 2013-2014 season commemorating its 25th anniversary. In a curator’s statement accompanying this show, Jordan writes that the center chose Okamura “because of his subjects – all youthful, all urban, with, as their demeanor suggests, serious stories to tell ….” He calls Okamura “probably one of the most thoughtful artists I’ve seen in some time. … He’s doing something not many people are doing.”
Okamura uses the techniques of realistic painting, “but it’s not a realism that comes out of living without nuance,” Jordan said.
Born in Edmonton, Canada, Okamura now lives in Brooklyn, the neighborhood that inspired these portraits, which he painted over a 10-year period. In an artist’s statement, Okamura writes that the work “emerged from a lifelong fascination with the emotionally expressive power of the human form and an intense interest in the juxtaposition of people in their environment.”
Most of the portraits are of women, “a segment of our society who I feel have been under-represented in the history of figurative painting and narrative works, and whose strength, courage and stoicism I most often find very inspirational,” he writes.
The paintings make use of Brooklyn buildings, graffiti art, and other elements that also give us a portrait of this neighborhood. Okamura also employs symbols and statements that in some portraits are almost hidden. Jordan points to “Tell-A-Vision,” a portrait of a woman carrying portable TV sets, as an example. As in many of his paintings, Okamura uses butterflies and doves as symbols. The butterflies are painted next to words like “positivity,” “peace” and “progress.” In another part of “Tell-A-Vision,” Okamura spray-painted the words, “Stop real crime,” in graffiti style. The woman is wearing two necklaces, one with a key, the other with a heart, part of what Jordan calls the artist’s personal symbolism.
In “The Peace Queen,” three women look into the distance. Okamura painted the word “Peace” next to several images of firearms. A dove hovers in another corner of the painting, and the background has an imposing example of graffiti art.
Two striking portraits of individual women are “The Coronation” and “Work Shirt.” In the first, a woman looks straight at the viewer, standing before a weathered brick building. Two doves and a crown complete the artist’s tribute to this woman. Jordan points out the detail in the scarf and the shirt in “Work Shirt.” Again, the eyes are central, “like she’s looking directly at you, but is also ready to say something,” Jordan said.
“Progressive Youth,” which Jordan calls the signature piece for the exhibit, shows two women, with confident looks. The hat of one of the women bears the word “Badstuy,’ (a play on words of the Bedford-Stuyvesant part of Brooklyn), a sample of the artist’s humor. In this and other portraits, many of the African-American women wear their hair naturally. “He sees beauty in a natural way,” Jordan said. “No one is overly dressed. … It’s a very unassuming way to get at someone’s beauty.”
While a viewer can perceive some of the power of these portraits in pictures, the full effect comes from seeing these life-size paintings in person. “I tell people the size matters,” Jordan said.


WHAT: “This Story Has Not Yet Been Told … ” paintings by Tim Okamura

WHEN: Exhibit is on view through Nov. 29
WHERE: Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History, 150 South Road, UNC Chapel Hill