Claire Natirbov is a musician and visual artist based in Tokyo. The product of Soviet defectors, Circassian Khans, and California countercurrent; she currently lives in Tokyo after spending almost a decade in NYC working as an assistant to a contemporary painter while developing her own visual art and music career. Her personal artistic style draws heavily from world mythology and medieval surrealist motifs which inform paintings imbued with occult and romantic undertones. When she’s not painting she is performing as a vocalist at jazz clubs throughout Tokyo, as well as releasing music with her Japanese and American bands (Kaiju Blu and Lacuna).
What is the most salient influence in your work? What has influenced your journey as an artist to this point?
A major influence for my work has been medieval manuscripts and alchemical illustrations. Visiting my family in Russia guided my first impressions of religious art and opened my eyes to modern interpretations of iconography. Likewise, seeing brilliantly illuminated Medieval and Renaissance art when I worked in Spain was a turning point for my own work. I was so transfixed by the depth of colors and the somewhat bloody and surreal subject matter. I’m still so fascinated by medieval expressions of mystical experiences or altered states.
For my job in Spain, I was based in the factory of a wood carver who was responsible for hand carving and painting life-sized saints and Jesuses for celebrations and processions such as Semana Santa. Every day in the warehouse I interpreted dramas and imposed life on hundreds of unfinished carved religious figures stacked on top of each other and stuffed in every corner of the workshop. I started to have a more personal (though iconoclastic) understanding of these religious characters with their disassembled and cloned bodies in total disarray. The absurdity or violence of their experiences became very relatable and almost comical, and they’ve become heavily featured in my art since then.
A lot of my recent work deals with classical monsters or saints as they are transfigured by caustic or psychedelic experiences. My hope is that these characters may cast off their long held duties and breathe a bit before interacting with modern problems.
How has living in Tokyo affected your art and music? How has living as an expat influenced your work currently?
When I first started exploring Japanese art after moving to Tokyo, I was so blown away by the brilliance of the pigments and the subtleties of Ukiyo-e prints when viewed in person. There’s so much nuance in the way a woman’s garment is arranged in a bijin-ga piece, and such gestural and compositional genius in the works of artists such as Utagawa Hiroshige. Many elements such as those overwhelmed me when I was introduced to Ukiyo-e as a whole. I’ve been really lucky to study so much incredible Japanese art and craftwork in person, but also contemporary Japanese artists like Tadanori Yokoo have had such an immense impact on my ability to express the dream worlds I want to inhabit.
I’ve been slowly relinquishing a hold out I used to have about allowing myself to create tenderly beautiful things. I thought magic or femininity in my work wouldn’t be taken seriously, so I would shift my focus away from the sublime. Recently I see a lot of contemporary illustration that leans into softness and vulnerability, and that has bolstered my focus on that dreaminess a bit. Maybe it speaks to a greater need within people, as there’s been a lot of damage that we’ve sustained lately as humans on this planet, but the softness that survives to see the light of day is incredibly strong. I used to hide my illustrations of magical women engaged in their magic, but lately I’m feeling more like they are doing important work.
Regarding music, Tokyo is an incredible city for jazz. There are so many serious and atmospheric jazz venues, and in my experience audiences really listen to performances and deeply appreciate live jazz. I’ve been lucky to meet and play with some massively talented cats here as well. The scene here has a very different feeling than the New York jazz spots I was playing at before I moved to Tokyo, so it has really been a huge learning experience.
During corona I started to focus more on writing and releasing music with the bands I’m in. One of them I work with remotely in America (Kaiju Blu), and one of them is a band here in Tokyo (Lacuna). Their styles vary greatly (lo fi/trip-hop and ambient/experimental/indie, respectively), and neither of them is jazz which is my main focus in terms of solo work, so I’m feeling very fulfilled creatively with all these influences keeping me on my toes.
What artists inspire you in music or visual art?
I most admire artists that dip into many mediums because what they want to say is too big or because it’s joyful to experiment. Someone like Patti Smith didn’t necessarily know she was propelling what would turn into a huge movement by living the life she was living and keeping her hands in so many mediums. She was just in love with art and making art by any means possible, and what resulted from that love was truly unique. I’m into that real old school romantic idealism that’s hard to sustain in today’s climate online. A lot of artists are having to focus their attention on branding their vision to be palatable and get boosted into spotlights by all of these faceless algorithms. Personally, I think a lot of creative energy gets lost in trying to game this tech in order to be considered a legitimate artist. In music too, I have a hard time picking a genre, which, in turn, affects how people are able to access my work. I have several music projects that I’m equally passionate about cultivating, but there’s a lot of pressure to pick a particular genre or get swallowed by the void.
Flexibility is where some real golden artistic potential lives, and the ability to switch from genre to genre is so vital to many artists. I love balancing between my projects, and I feel them feed each other inspiration and energy. When one aspect of a piece isn’t working I switch my attention to another creative channel and eventually find solutions to the problem I was faced with in the first place. If I act like a lightning rod, then poetry, or painting, or singing, or whatever needs to be expressed will hopefully find its way out.