The young, naked girls in Audrey Kawasaki's paintings may look different, but they are actually identical. "It's all the same girl," Kawasaki says. "It's one person."
She always paints the girl in oils, always on wood panel. She sketches the face, the torso, the breasts, legs and gangly arms and fingers, then starts brushing in the lights and darks. Sometimes the girl won't cooperate. She refuses to come out. Nothing to do then but switch to another painting and bide your time. But there is a moment when, eventually, the girl arrives. "Oh, my God, she's here!" the artist will say.
At these moments, she becomes the epitome of ideal beauty to Kawasaki: confident, powerful, sexual, vulnerable. It's something to do with the lines or the shading, and it usually happens early on, when the painting is only half-finished.
It's important to tread lightly at this stage. Facial expression is subtle. One wayward line, one misapplied curve of the lip or eyelid can send the girl running, and Kawasaki will have to labor for hours to coax her back.
The girl often pouts. Sometimes she looks drugged, languid, her skin so translucent you can see the heart beating beneath it. Her eyes are big. Probably because Kawasaki, 28, was raised on the doe-eyed heroines of manga and anime.
As with certain varieties of Japanese animation, Kawasaki is criticized for eroticizing very young girls. The haters take one look at her dewy, full-lipped, nubile-breasted muse entwined with other naked teenage nymphettes, and charge her with promoting pedophilia. "That's the hardest part," she says.
Occasionally, out in the real world, Kawasaki encounters people who embody her girl's essence. Kawasaki almost can't look directly at them, would never even consider speaking to them. "It's exciting but frightening, too," she says, sitting cross-legged on the floor of her quiet studio.
Kawasaki isn't insane. She knows she is constantly chasing a persona that doesn't exist. She likes that she can't capture the girl fully, because then she can keep painting her. Problems of artistic representation, the idea of the corrupting flesh and the ability of material art to portray divine spiritual truths are old as the Renaissance.
Over the years, Kawasaki's paintings have grown darker, more melancholy. Her girl is a shape-shifter. She pops up in various erotic and/or creepy scenarios: schoolgirl with human-anatomy models; geisha with cranes; nude with crocodiles; forest sprite with the spirits of foxes. In one painting, she's marching in a parade of yokai, Japanese fairy-tale demons, each assigned a mischievous purpose: "They do different things to people. It was her being able to mix and mingle amongst them."
In another, she's surrounded by rabbits with their eyes closed. Are the rabbits sleeping? "No, they're dead," Kawasaki says sweetly.
These are not self-portraits. But a professor of Kawasaki's at Brooklyn's Pratt Institute once suggested that the girl is an alter ego. A self but opposite. Kawasaki is painfully shy.
Her girl's personal history is vague. She exists in a netherworld. "She's like a ghost, maybe."
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Is the artist sad to let the girl go once each painting is done? A small, enigmatic smile flits across Kawasaki's face. "Oh, but I have to."