Even though she creates the likenesses of people, they’re not portraits in any traditional sense. Kumi Yamashita has worked with shadow, alphabet letters, and even shoe prints to render the delicate faces of individuals, using whatever obscure medium she’s working in to highlight every glance, wrinkle and shadow. Her portraits focus on faces and let the rest of the body fade away underneath, each face revealing a perfect, unique composition of nose, eyes, mouth, and cheeks.
Her two newest works were created in opposite ways – the first involves the stripping away of white threads from a single piece of denim, revealing the vertically oriented portrait of a woman who turns to look back at us in “Warp & Weft – Mother #2.” Her second latest work comes from her Constellation series – portraits made from a single unbroken thread that’s been wrapped around a dense forest of galvanized nails. “Constellation – Mana #2” reveals the nail-speckled face of a little Asian girl, her eyes cast down in wonder and her face glowing against a dark background.
The intricacies of Kumi’s Constellation works can only be fully appreciated in the detail shots that let you see how much intricate detail it takes to capture a likeness with just nails and a single piece of thread. One eye alone takes at least thirty nails, and who knows how many hours to create. According to Kumi’s website each Constellation portrait takes a process lasting many months to create, all the nails piercing through a wooden panel painted solid white.
It looks like the little girl is discovering something for the first time, her face glowing and eyebrows arched with interest. In my mind she’s watching Kumi create this very portrait, lips parted in awe as the string is wound rapidly around the nails to create her likeness out of a single black thread.
A Japanese artist living and working in New York City, Kumi Yamashita has been showing her work all over the world since the early 2000s. Her piece “Constellation – Mana” was chosen as a finalist in the Smithsonian’s Outwin Boochever Competition, and will be on display at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. for almost an entire year, from March 23, 2013 through February 23, 2014. The competition asks artists to create a portrait from a living person they’ve had direct contact with.
According to Philip Kennicott’s Washington Post article about the competition, “Constellation – Mana” shows an image of Kumi’s niece, someone she described as “chatty, awkward and sometimes obnoxious.” Kennicott writes, “From a distance, the portrait appears to be a photograph that has been slightly altered to give its surface the look of a lightly crackled pottery glaze. Closer inspection reveals the astonishingly complicated method of its production: A single fine string has been wound around hundreds of delicate nails, giving a sense of the missing snapshot through the density of the web it creates.”