Roger Shimomura has emptied out the attic for “Great American Muse,” his latest show at Greg Kucera Gallery. The 40 paintings in this show recombine memorable images from his past work and the history of modern art, tying them up in a messy thought-provoking package. Shimomura has dedicated his career to challenging the racial stereotypes faced by Asian Americans in general and Japanese Americans in particular, sometimes confronting them directly, in the form of buck-tooth yellow-face cartoons from World War II. Sometimes he parodies them, inserting characters from 19th century Japanese art into contemporary settings. He calls out younger Japanese Americans for their materialistic American lifestyle, and non-Asians who can’t tell Japanese from Chinese. His three decades-long body of work about the Internment is a poignant and powerful historical document.
An academically trained artist and a professor at the University of Kansas for 40 years, Shimomura’s work aligns with American Pop Art. For American Muse, he appropriates fragments of famous works by Pop artists Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Tom Wesselmann; icons of modern art such as Picasso and Mondrian; and Japanese ukiyo-e master Hokusai. Google them and you will be able to spot snippets of their work throughout the show. Wesselmann and Lichtenstein also influenced his compositional style: 24-inch square images so densely layered and tightly framed that people and objects are crowded off the edges. A Picasso portrait backgrounds two nudes, one Caucasian, one Asian, their poses draw from Wesselmann but rendered in the style of an ukiyo-e print (“Great American Muse #15”). A geisha faces off with Minnie Mouse in front of Lichtenstein’s “Smoking Gun” (#27). A samurai and a fashion model make an incongruous couple in front of Lichtenstein’s comic-book lovers (#48).
“A few years ago my wife gave me a book on artist Tom Wesselmann that caused me to re-examine his paintings,” Shimomura states. “…these compositions were based upon fixed sets of images and locales, such as the female figure, kitchen, bathroom, groceries, art, and appliances. Upon this realization, I began to juxtapose similar images that I had used in my own work, … images that commonly had ethnic connotations such as woodblock prints, World War II, samurai, and geisha. I discovered that the level of interpretation rose exponentially, as each additional component brought its own history and associations. This resulted in endless possibilities for dialogue and debate.” The resulting works are dense and visually complex. His highly developed painter’s eye for composition and color is what holds them together. The show encompasses a dizzying array of references to art history, American history, and Shimomura’s history. But it can simply be enjoyed as an exhibition of fine painting.
“Great American Muse” is at Greg Kucera Gallery through December 24. For more information, call 206-624-0770 or visit http://www.gregkucera.com.