Painting the windows of the soul.
Kohshin Finley’s portraits depict more than a person.
His subjects stare out at viewers; their faces and busts dominate oversized canvases, zones that stretch nearly five feet wide. They are mostly young, dark-skinned persons in modern dress; in t-shirts and hoodies, oxfords and sweaters; accessorized with metallic linked watches, beaded earrings, small studs, a cross necklace or two. There are light, white streaks on their faces and necks, sometimes on their arms and hands; slight enough, but persistent weights to look through; brushes that get in the way of marking time and staking place. These are portraits watch you back, catching you catching them. They ask questions without speaking. They interrogate the fuzzy world around them by subverting gazes.
And they’re more than just paintings. They depict stories, feelings, histories, places, the various different parts of a life that smudge and make a person, all through these sharp facial expressions. These portraits are specifically of persons of color — specifically American persons of color — and each, in a single captured image, embodies centuries of experience, of intergenerational pains and pleasures worn on skin. Each painting is deeply personal, a line drawn from the artist’s life to the life of the subject. They are intimate and deep, distilled to a single image through the filter of the Los Angeles artist’s own life and experiences.
“The people that appear in my current work are all friends and family,” says Finley. Before a subject sits for him, a connection is made — and this is the most important ingredient in Finley’s process; an inspiration point that direct where the brush travels.
“My process starts with simple conversations, usually ones that don’t even speak directly to the piece at all,” explains Finley.
He then transforms these talks into poems that tie him and his subject closer together, using them to “tell stories and translate emotions.” These conversations truly are a creative catalyst; “another opportunity to create a comfortability and take an even deeper dive into what the paintings capture.”
Finley’s practice is a conversation. He not only uses these stories as references and guidance in depicting each subject, but also in bringing his view of them in the world — and in his life — to the work as well. This adds an urgency to the work based on an intimacy, a quality of looking outward and inward simultaneously as artist and subject, and also makes his creative process even easier too.
“Every one of my subjects are friends of mine, so working with them comes quite organically,” says Finley. “Having the prior connection with my friends adds a layer of trust to the paintings that wouldn’t be there otherwise.”
Between friendships, conversations, and poetic platforms to spring him toward the canvas, what Finley is doing is stripping down the experiences and places and histories of a life into an essence: He is capturing an emotion.
“Emotion is everything,” says Finley. “They say ‘eyes are the windows to the soul,’ and I really take that to heart in the studio. This specificity — and attention to emotion — allows people to connect to everything encapsulated in the paintings. It’s through that connection that the potential of creating a level of empathy and understanding is possible, and an opportunity for both artist and subject to be seen fully.”
This is crucial in complicated times, particularly in this American time and place, where persons of color are repeatedly and disproportionately discriminated against and attacked. Accordingly, his paintings operate not only to interrogate society’s treatment of these communities but to question their treatment within art as well.
“In the history of painting, the number of paintings that feature African-American people is quite a small number, relatively,” says Finley. “By painting these works, I’m adding to the history of painting, while simultaneously adding to the lexicon of art history – and that is very important to me.”
“While the paintings feature my friends and their tales of resilience, I’m very much featured in these paintings as the storyteller, capturing my friends how I see them and how they deserve to be seen,” he continues. “The experience of being a person of color in America is at the heart of the works.”
Finley addresses this history in a similar way that he uses color. He removes color as a means to situate these experiences solidly as a part of the black, American experience.
“I removed color from my practice to take out a component that I felt was another layer that people can analyze,” explains Finley. “[With] people of color [being painted] in grayscale, a viewer can’t say it is ‘this type of brown person or people,’ but [my work] allows them the opportunity to see the painting as a painting of a ‘person,’ without a color adjective.”
Add in the white marks, and you have a fully realized work from Finley. These bring the paintings, the stories, to a point — a climax — one that grabs a viewer to tell you everything about them, and the painter’s process without saying anything at all.
“The white paint really came about as a way of visibly seeing someone carrying their experiences on them,” Finley continues. “This is a way of saying, ‘I’ve been through this.’”
“The audience can see that, connect to that, and then dig deeper.”
Written by Kyle Fitzpatrick
Edited by Jaclyn Siu
Photos by Andy J. Scott