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Interview: Yusk Imai’s Monochrome Bodypainting Project “Exoskeleton”

Since before he can remember, Brazil based painter Yusk Imai has had a curiosity about the human anatomy, and has always liked to paint figures, hands, and legs. This interest eventually led to his monochrome bodypainting project, called "Exoskeleton," where he decided to try and paint on actual bodies, with all the distinct textures that he has created for his paintings, featured here on our blog. His canvas, or rather the bodies he uses as canvas, is his friends who volunteer for the project. For this special studio visit in Sao Paulo, I decided to be his ninth volunteer and have my right leg transformed into a work of art while I interviewed the artist.

Since before he can remember, Brazil based painter Yusk Imai has had a curiosity about the human anatomy, and has always liked to paint figures, hands, and legs. This interest eventually led to his monochrome bodypainting project, called “Exoskeleton,” where he decided to try and paint on actual bodies, with all the distinct textures that he has created for his paintings, featured here on our blog. His canvas, or rather the bodies he uses as canvas, is his friends who volunteer for the project. For this special studio visit in Sao Paulo, I decided to be his ninth volunteer and have my right leg transformed into a work of art while I interviewed the artist.

HF: What materials do you use for the bodypainting? Is it hard to wash-off?

YI: I use acrylic ink and water based markers, it takes a few minutes to wash it off, it’s very ephemeral.

HF: What is the main difference between painting on a canvas and painting on a body?

YI: When I paint on a body I have to respect a structure that already exists, the muscles, the bones, the anatomy. My work has to be designed for the body’s specific structure.

HF: Do you consider it a challenge?

YI: Yes. It is very difficult for me to create a new identity if I can’t change the structure. Unlike my paintings, I cannot twist, create, invent, do whatever I like with the body. I still want to give it a new identity, to build something bigger. I have this idea of growing this project into something more produced – build a scenario, dress the volunteers the way I want to, take pictures with a special lighting and all that.

HF: What is the main theme of this project?

YI: An exoskeleton is the external skeleton that supports and protects animal’s body, it’s a second skin. It protects animals such as cicadas, lobsters, armadillos and other insects. My idea is to create a second skin for a human body, a protection, another layer for the body.

HF: What references do you use for the textures and patterns?

YI: Most of my first references come from Japanese paintings, but I’m always trying to create new patterns and create new styles. For the “Exoskeleton” project I use the ones I have in mind and mix with the others.

HF: Do you sketch?

YI: I rarely sketch. Usually I just think about the way I want my work to look like and then I improvise. I like this saying: “Defect turns into effect” by my friend and graffiti writer Gueto.

HF: What can you learn from bodypainting?

YI: It is a type of study. I learn a lot about the human anatomy when I paint in a body. I see how the lines behave when the person moves, how the ink moves and changes the whole thing. It makes me realize even more how perfect the body machinery is. I have this great opportunity to learn from nature’s design. When I go back to the canvas paintings I use a lot of my learnings, it always comes back to be. It makes me paint the shapes better. I can imagine the muscles, the bones. It works as a form of study to me.

HF: What is the relation between the bodypainting project and your current work?

YI: Usually, when an artist works, his mind is focused on the work, no matter what else he does during his day he will think about his work. Right now I am working on this solo exhibition, so I do the bodypainting with the exhibit in mind and it turns out that one work shows a little bit of itself in the other, and as I have said before, bodypainting is a study to me so I use its lessons when I paint human bodies or parts of the human body.

HF: You are now working on a new series of 12 paintings titled “Mortal Drama”. Tell us about that.

YI: The main theme is based on the idea that life is an improvised act, there is nothing we can be definite or sure about. Do we really have to plan everything? Do we need to plan our future all the time? Nothing really happens on previous notice and my new work is about questioning it: is worth to try to control things that are out of our reach and sometimes even out of our comprehension? Everything is an improvised comedy or drama that we can’t control and this is our mortal drama.

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American-born Japanese artist Yusk Imai portrays highly stylized figures drawn from his dreams and mythology. Working in his studio in Berlin, Imai creates using a variety of materials and applications including sketches, painting on canvas and wood, photography and large scale wall murals. Often drawing in monochrome, ink on paper is his favorite medium. His images have been compared to Gustav Klimt for their use of intricate patterns and symbolism.
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Berlin-based artist Yusk Imai creates fragmented monochromatic figures that draw upon a variety of artistic styles. Previously featured on our blog, Imai's work channels themes found in Art Nouveau, as in his ornate detailing, or Surrealism, in more bizarre renderings, to modern day comic books. Often, these themes address the idea of an uncontrollable world all around us, whether through psychology, symbolism, or the supernatural. In his most recent works, Imai tries to understand the psychology behind feelings like forgetfulness and distraction. These explorations often take him "elsewhere", to some strange other-world within his subconscious that is governed by dark characters.

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