Former Seattle native Roger Shimomura recently divulged his tendency to hoard small objects.
The artist made this confession to an impressively large crowd at the Greg Kucera Gallery earlier this month. Shimomura gave a brief chronology of the various items he has accumulated during his 60 years living in the United States.
He started collecting comic books, and then polished bottle caps, bubble gum wrappers, James Dean memorabilia, jazz records, vintage ads, decoder rings and antique toys. As a child, he was a Japanese American internee at Idaho’s Camp Minidoka in 1942. Among other things, that experience affected his object collection, he has acquired old propaganda postcards, internment memorabilia, government pamphlets from that time, and pre-1950 novels about the internment.
As he recounted his list, it became clear he uses the images he stores in both his memory and in boxes to convey powerful messages in his new show “Stereotypes and Admonitions,” on view at the Greg Kucera Gallery through March 27.
These objects flood his home in Lawrence, Kansas, where he is in his last year teaching at the University of Kansas. The objects feed the abundant stream of artwork that uses old, stereotypical images to make audiences rethink issues of race, identity and society. Objects like the “Kung Fool Halloween mask, “ he explained, hold a certain power to them—it is the energy of protest among the affected communities that interests him, as a fascinating facet of the human condition.
Shimomura’s new collection of paintings is an amalgamation of the idealistic misrepresentation of American life in Archie comics, traditional geisha and samurai characters in ukiyo-e wood block prints, and World War Two racist, anti-Japanese propaganda.
He said he mainly seeks to work with two stereotypical images: the evil, monstrous, bomb-dropping, invading foreigners, and the romanticized, traditional kimono wearing geisha or samurai. Both are seen as perpetual foreigners, albeit the former is definitely the harsher of the two stereotypes.
Although Shimomura uses a bit of traditional Japanese paintings in his palette, he admitted it was very likely that a lot of people in attendance at the Kucera gathering knew more about nanga paiting than he did. However, no one can dispute his expert skill at reproducing the classic comic book characters that pervaded his American childhood, or his ability to paint racist imagery with just as much force as when the pictures were used to visually assault Asian communities in American for generations.
Shimomura’s paintings are shocking to Asian Americans who believe the images of the buck-toothed, slant-eyed, catfish mustachioed Chinaman were dead and gone, and some have criticized him for his artistic revival of the racists imagery.
The artist not only reminds us that these images are still being used (as with his paintings of Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirts, and the popular Internet cartoon, Mr. Wong), but forces Asians to come to terms with how they were perceived by Americans during its long ugly history of xenophobia, its inheritance of prejudice and cultural ignorance still being manifested today.
Shimomura points out he brings up issues often suppressed by Asian American populations, but turns non-issues into issues for white Americans, who may not have been exposed to racial incidents such as those illustrated in the show.
In Shimomura’s depictions of Americans, he presents a stereotype that is just as idealized and false, which begs the question, how are these misrepresentations different? “West Seattle Shotgun” depicts a 1958 incident, when Shimomura dated an American girl named Jan. Jan asked Shimomura to drop her off one block from her house because her father threatened to “shoot the Jap with his gun like he had done in World War II.”
The painting shows a beautiful blond-haired, pink-toned starlet nuzzling a buck-toothed, yellow skinned man with a shaved head, his long, red tongue outstretched menacingly. A double barrel of a large shotgun is pointed to his head.
The images of both of these people are implausible interpretations of reality, and are the results of the traditional images planted in Americans’ minds, either through propaganda fueled by racist hatred or pop art as a form of escapism. They represent the opposite ends of two extremes—how one would view the world if there were no gray areas, where everyone is either a devil or an angel. This juxtaposition of extremes ridicules the “you’re either one or the other” mindset that condemns the straddling of cultures so prominent in modern Asian American society.
It is precisely because these images are racially intensive that he uses them in his work, Shimomura explained. “I want to bring that level of consciousness back because those stereotypes still exist in the minds of some people.” His piece “Not Pearl Harbor” uses imagery he saw in U.S. auto dealership ads in Kansas in the 1970’s: fighter jests with the Japanese red sun emblazoned along their sides, dropping bombs on the United States.
When Shimomura fist moved to Lawrence, Kansas, he said it had such a small Asian population that there was inevitably a lot of ignorance about Asian Americans. He probably would not create works like this if he lived in Seattle, he said, but living in Kansas gives him a “regional license” to create work on this subject matter.
“As long as racist incidents keep happening, I’ll continue to do my work.”