Gallery Glance: “Staging Shimomura” at the Spencer Museum of Art

Many museums around the region have closed in response to the COVID-19/ coronavirus threat. The Spencer Museum of Art’s galleries are closed through March 31.

One of the most memorable art performances of the past 30 years was Roger Shimomura’s “The Last Sansei Story,” presented at Johnson County Community College in October 1993.

The three-act show, one of roughly three dozen performances dating to Shimomura’s grad school days in the late 1960s, brought the themes and images of his well-known, Pop-inspired paintings and prints vividly to life through film, live acting, projected photographs and music.

A new exhibition at the Spencer Museum of Art offers an overview of the longtime KU professor of art’s prolific history as a performance artist. According to the exhibit’s curator, Kris Ercums, “Staging Shimomura” includes digitally remastered excerpts of most of the artist’s major performance works and related prints, paintings, theatrical props and ephemera.

Like a portal into the artist’s consciousness, the performances draw on all the themes, experiences and events which have captured Shimomura’s imagination and elicited his critique throughout his career. The balance of humor and heartbreak is compelling, in works ranging from the early “Toku’s Dance,” one of many performances inspired by the diary his grandmother Toku kept while Roger and his family were interned in Camp Minidoka in Idaho during World War II, to his final performance, “Amnesia,” dating to 2002.

Shoji screens, Noh masks and barbed wire are mainstays of Shimomura’s iconography. “The Last Sansei Story” included an original song, “Yellow No Same,” combatting Westerners’ widely held view that all Asians are the same. Music and dance are central to Shimomura’s performances, which have incorporated traditional Japanese music, Sousa marches, pop tunes from the artist’s youth and a variety of sound effects.

“Campfire Diary” opens with footage of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which set in motion Executive Order 9066, establishing the infamous Japanese American internment camps, where Shimomura spent time as a child with his family.

As Ercums notes, “One compelling aspect of the exhibition is how Roger’s examination of stereotypes and racism continues to resonate in today’s America.”

A highlight of the exhibition is a restaging of Shimomura’s “Relocation Luncheon,” an installation featuring a weathered picnic table with items from Camp Minodoka. A soundtrack of entries from his grandmother’s diary from December 1942 accompanies video segments of a changing sky viewed through a barbed wire fence.

The exhibit will also feature excerpts of works by Shimomura’s students from the years he taught performance at KU. “Staging Shimomura” is a major undertaking, occupying three galleries on the third floor including the spacious Central Court. In conjunction with the exhibit, Shimomura will be awarded an honorary doctorate in the arts by KU in May.

“Staging Shimomura” opened Feb. 28 and continues at KU’s Spencer Museum of Art, 1301 Mississippi St., Lawrence, through June 21. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Friday and Saturday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. Closed Mondays. For more information about the exhibit and related events, 785.864.4710 or www.spencerart.ku.edu.

Above: Video still from a performance of Roger Shimomura’s “Campfire Diary” (1993), inspired by the infamous Japanese American internment camps where Shimomura spent time as a child with his family during World War II.

Alice Thorson

Alice Thorson is the editor of KC Studio. She has written about the visual arts for numerous publications locally and nationally.

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