Kohshin Finley paints with legacy in mind – for him and his subjects

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When I meet Kohshin Finley for pastries in Hollywood, he has a legacy on his mind.

It’s not uncommon for artists to ponder whether their work will stand the test of time – thinking about which museums will collect the work or what the history books will say. Which works of art find their way into the canon is subject to the whims of collectors, curators and critics.

But Finley isn’t just investing in building an artistic legacy for himself. He’s invested for his family, his friends, his community. After all, they are the subjects of his pictures.

“As an artist, you want your work to be shown in museums, and I make paintings of real people,” says Finley. “Well, one of the things I want to say is that the person in it is also a work of art.”

Artist Kohshin Finley is photographed with a self-portrait he painted for his Eight Artworks exhibit at Various Small Fires in Dallas.(Nan Coulter / Featured Contributor)

In his latest exhibition, Eight Artworks, the Los Angeles-based painter transforms his brother, fiancé, a collection of friends and – in one case – himself into intimate, emotional works of art. The paintings are on view at Various Small Fires in downtown Dallas through November 12.

Art has been a part of Finley’s life since childhood. He grew up in South Central Los Angeles with parents who both worked as fashion designers. His father, Ron Finley, used their home as a studio to create custom clothing and a line called the Drop Dead Collection, which was popular with professional athletes and movie stars. (He’s also famous for a TED talk and later a master class on guerrilla gardening.) Finley and his two brothers were in the studio for fittings and watched their parents create new designs. His younger brother Delfin is also a painter.

Finley’s first artistic creations were comic book covers. He had an idea, created the first few pages, and then started a whole new one. Finley started out as a graphic designer at Otis College of Art and Design before moving into illustration and photography and eventually painting. Today he integrates these different forms into his process.

The works on display in Dallas begin as candid photographs. He takes his camera with him everywhere, looking for everyday moments that he transforms into paintings. In the studio, he first thinks about what the person in the photo means to him and then writes it freehand on the canvas. He paints their portraits over the writing. If you look closely, you can see traces of his cursive writing.

“A lot of these lyrics are meditations on my time with the person I’m portraying—my time with them, who they are, who they are to me,” says Finley. “I see the text as a welcome greeting, as an invitation to approach the work.”

This invitation is worth accepting as it allows a viewer to see the exquisite detail in Finley’s work. From a distance, these works appear strikingly photorealistic, even in the gray tones of grisaille. Up close, however, you can appreciate the delicacy of the brushstrokes and discover that some of the whites in the painting are simply the chalk ground on the bare canvas.

This isn’t Finley’s first clash with Dallas. In fact, the city plays an important role in his career. In April, the Dallas Museum of Art became the first major institution to add one of his paintings to its collection. It was one of the museum’s acquisitions from the Dallas Art Fair.

Kohshin Finleys "Portrait of Cameron in the Sunrise," an oil on canvas painting from 2022 of his ...
Kohshin Finley’s Portrait of Cameron, in Sunrise, a 2022 oil-on-canvas painting by his fiancee, is part of his Eight Artworks exhibition at Various Small Fires Texas. The VSF gallery also has locations in Los Angeles and Seoul, South Korea.(Various Small Fires Texas)

It hasn’t escaped Finley that the piece was titled ‘A Portrait of the Artist as Himself’. Thus, Finley’s art and image were added to a collection that includes self-portraits by Diego Rivera, Camille Pissarro, and Paul Cézanne. Joining a museum recontextualizes a work of art and elevates it into a direct conversation with masterpieces.

“My goal as an artist is to be in institutions and museums, not only because I think that’s where work is fundamentally protected, but also because people go there with their families to see art,” says Finley . “That was always what I had in mind.”

Finley is well on his way to leaving a legacy. Various Small Fires will announce the acquisition of one of his paintings by a major Los Angeles institution later this year, opening up a whole new context for his art—and, by extension, his community.

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Kohshin Finley’s Eight Artworks exhibition runs through November 12 at Various Small Fires Texas, 1511 Commerce St., Dallas. Tuesday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. For more information see vsf.la.

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