With more than 100 paintings, and subject matter that unabashedly juxtaposes politics and pop culture with the personal, Roger Shimomura blows the roof off Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art with “American Muse.” At 79, the internationally known Japanese -American artist is creating art that is more assured than ever.
Stylistically, Shimomura is known for work that is graphic and comic book punchy, wherein a surreal mash-up of characters and signage obliviously commingle. Despite their small scale — all the works here are either 24 x 24 or 12 x 12 inches — Shimomura neatly sets ethnic stereotypes next to comic book characters, self portraits and references to classic modern artworks.
The exhibit has three separate bodies of work, all of them ongoing, and certain motifs overlap throughout. The earliest paintings, from 2013, are from Shimomura’s “Minidoka and Beyond” series. They contain flashbacks to his family’s incarceration at Camp Minidoka during WWII, when over 100,000 Japanese Americans were imprisoned in ten camps around the country. Shimomura was only a child then, but his grandmother, Toku, wrote numerous diaries (some of which she destroyed, as she feared them being discovered by U.S. officials), and they are the source of much of this work. Shimomura had them translated from the Japanese after she died so he could read them, and they continue to inspire him.
“Stacks” portrays illustrations of nuclear cooling towers viewed from a barbed wire-covered window. These windows were constructed in the many tiny tar paper homes built specially for the camps. The towers are an invented image, but one that conveys the context of life for a Japanese American during WWII. A beautifully painted baked potato also appears in several works, a reference to the state of Idaho where Minidoka was located.
The “Great American Muse” series pays homage to Shimomura’s love of Pop Art. He was enrolled at Syracuse University in New York in the 1960s, working on his Master of Fine Arts, when he was introduced to Pop Art and the artists who made it. In his 2015 “Great American Muse” catalog he writes: “While Pop was generally understood as cool and detached, I was interested in making it hot and relevant. With this realization, seeds were planted and a lifetime of juxtaposing images that reflect both mainstream and cultural values began to germinate. In retrospect I think I was endorsing one popular definition of Post Modernism as ‘finding the deeper meaning of life through comic books.’”
One of the most striking images in this series is “Great American Muse #29,” in which a naked geisha sits in a bathtub in a bathroom where a diamond-shaped Mondrian painting hangs over a toilet with the seat up. Although Shimomura refuses to interpret his artwork, this piece, simultaneously hilarious and beautiful, hints that Modernist art, and certain of its values, were washed away by the vigor of Pop; the Japanese references are more personal.
Shimomura’s latest series, “Muslims and More,” includes portraits of Donald Trump (sometimes just his hair, as in “Muslims and More #35”) along with pictures of barbed wire, samurai, women in Muslim headdresses, assorted cartoon icons and various jingoist stereotypes. It’s no accident that Shimomura conflates imagery from his Minidoka series with “Muslims and More;” he understands only too well the poisonous effects of prejudice, and the slippery slope facing governments and policies that demonize the “other.”
The power of Shimomura’s art lies in his openhearted approach to picturing what has harmed him — a “raw and racist” childhood — together with what has brought him joy, whether that be art or comic book heroes. “I like to bang things against one another,” he says, “whether it’s food I like to eat, or things I love culturally. Every one of the images I paint has a direct life experience for me. There’s really nothing profound about it.”
“Roger Shimomura: American Muse” continues at Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art, 2004 Baltimore, through May 25. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday – Saturday and by appointment. For more information, 816.221.2626 or sherryleedy.com.