Roger Shimomura, “Great American Muse,” Greg Kucera Gallery, Nov. 5-Dec. 24
A sensuous, bare-shouldered woman with a broad, red smile. An homage to an artistic influence in the form of a framed Roy Lichtenstein print hanging on the wall. An arrangement of everyday household products on a table, visible beyond the (very yellow) curve of the woman’s arm.
In “Great American Muse #1” by painter and former University of Kansas Lawrence art professor Roger Shimomura, the observer can identify many common elements from artist Tom Wesselmann’s famous “Great American Nude” series, created between 1961 and 1973. Yet Shimomura does not emulate Wesselmann so much as add layer upon layer of meaning to compositions inspired by the Pop Art-era artist, creating juxtapositions that raise “endless possibilities for dialogue and debate,” as Shimomura puts it.
In “Great American Muse #1,” it is an Asian woman with almond eyes and yellow skin whom Shimomura has depicted. The framed image in the background (half of Lichtenstein’s lauded Pop Art diptych “Whaam!” showing an American fighter jet in combat) injects the menace of wartime violence into this domestic setting. Japanese cooking products sit beside a carton of milk. Barely noticeable in the upper right corner, rows of barbed wire stand out against a dark blue sky, situating the scene in a Japanese internment camp—a recurrent theme for Shimomura, a Seattle-born Japanese American who spent two years in the Minidoka War Relocation Center in Idaho as a young child.
Roger Shimomura’s latest exhibition, “Great American Muse” at downtown Seattle’s Greg Kucera Gallery (Nov. 5-Dec. 24, 2015), calls into question what it is to be American at a moment when issues of immigration and the treatment of religious and racial minorities have stoked disturbing, extremist viewpoints. In his artist’s statement, Shimomura describes how he sought to transform the “cool and detached” Pop Art phenomenon when he was studying painting in the late 1960s; now as well as then, he makes it “hot and relevant” instead.
The show’s forty 24” X 24” acrylic works on canvas, all painted between 2013 and 2015, commingle traditional Japanese imagery with American pop culture, racial stereotypes with idealized beauties, and the mundane with the chilling.
Cultural references spell out the injustice suffered by Japanese Americans in “Great American Muse #49,” in which Lieutenant Sulu from “Star Trek” gazes solemnly out an internment camp window while the Starship Enterprise soars above. In this one arresting image, Shimomura conveys a scathing critique of Japanese internment via the story of one individual, George Takei, who survived internment and eventually went on to play Sulu and become a prominent civil rights activist. The painting blurs the lines between Takei’s real history and the fictional role he played, and it confronts the viewer with the troubling image of a beloved icon unjustly subjected to discrimination and imprisonment.
However, most of the pieces in this exhibition are far more ambiguous and leave interpretation largely to the viewer. The artworks are numbered rather than named. In many paintings, the figures turn their faces away, leaving their emotional state up to the observer’s imagination. The artist’s plentiful references to Pop Art predecessors and artistic influences add nuances for viewers who get the allusion, but they usually don’t help decode a clearly hidden meaning.
Shimomura appropriates art by others into almost every work in the exhibition, often in the form of a framed picture, but also as a backdrop behind the figures. He constantly forces viewers to question their own relationship to the visual references and speculate on the meaning they might have for the artist or the people within each painting. For example, the artist raises issues of beauty when he juxtaposes Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroes and Elizabeth Taylors with figures depicted in ukiyo-e style in different eroticized scenarios.
Similarly, he evokes American racism in “Great American Muse #25,” where an Asian female addresses a redheaded woman whose back is turned to the viewer. Behind them looms a massive, buck-toothed, pug-nosed caricature reminiscent of anti-Japanese wartime propaganda by Theodore Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss). What words are they exchanging beneath its gaze, if it even represents a “real” background for the women and not the metaphorical context for their conversation?
This exhibition turns interpretation itself into a theme. By placing figures in the foreground in front of images, Shimomura stresses the act of interpreting itself rather than the identity of the observer or the image observed.
In “Great American Muse #7,” Shimomura delivers a potent reminder that a layer of interpretation always comes between an observer and an image. The lower body of a person dominates the painting, maddeningly obscuring what appears to be Lichtenstein’s 1963 work “Thinking of Him.” The figure’s legs cut off the lines of Lichtenstein’s composition, blocking the expected outline of a woman’s profile, hiding the man’s face in the thought bubble to the left. The image is all the more jarring, because the viewer sees the Lichtenstein straight on, yet appears to be looking up at the legs and backside from below. This slight skew between visual planes disorients the viewer and reinforces that one isn’t looking at an actual Lichtenstein, but at a Pop Art image appropriating another Pop Art image.
Tom Wesselmann presumably named his series “Great American Nude” after his subject matter, but what about “Great American Muse”? A muse inspires the artist but isn’t necessarily portrayed in the work of art. Roger Shimomura takes Wesselmann’s series, and Pop Art more generally, as his starting point and inspiration to explore and question American culture. Pop Art holds a mirror up to everyday life, decontextualizing the banal and provoking reactions. Shimomura inserts an additional layer of reflection and self-awareness that bring questions of multiculturalism and race into the mix.
In “Great American Muse #17,” Wesselmann’s “Great American Nude #27” appears to hang on the wall to the upper left. Soy sauce bottles in the foreground parallel the row of ice cream treats in Wesselmann’s painting, while in the foreground, a curvy brunette emulates the come-hither pose of the nude. Shimomura’s composition mirrors Wesselmann’s so explicitly that it nearly fools the eye. Is the artist suggesting that “his” America, as full of Asian influences as of American ones, is as American as Wesselmann’s? Like the rest of this stunning, provocative exhibition, the painting offers no answers, but extends a call for debate, since, in Shimomura’s words, “[u]ltimately, there is no correct nor best interpretation of each painting, but I invite each viewer to express and share their own interpretations.”
Roger Shimomura’s “Great American Muse” at the Greg Kucera Gallery will run through Dec. 24, 2015.