Roger Shimomura, 100 More White Lies #92, 2022. Acrylic on canvas, 12″ x 12″.
Who needs the metaverse when you can visit Roger Shimomura’s latest exhibit “100 More White Lies” at Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art? Everything Everywhere All at Once pretty much sums up the impact of this show’s 100 small (12 x 12”) paintings, a virtual kaleidoscope of Shimomura’s lifelong aesthetic and personal preoccupations, blended and mixed in a broth that is part history, part pain, part humor, and total genius. It’s not necessary to know the backstory of each artwork to enjoy them (although the gallery personnel are glad to explain); it’s a time-traveling extravaganza both baffling and inspiring.
The 83-year-old painter and performance artist continues to astound not only with his protean output, but with his fluid mix of art genres and topics. Surrealism, Pop Art, Anime, Ukiyoe, and cartoon art co-exist and sometimes collide in these works, as well as in a group of large-scale self-portraits in which Shimomura does battle along with a number of his cartoon protagonists.
Some of the motifs in Shimomura’s art have been constants for decades. Warhol portraits of movie stars (the catalog cover is a self-portrait of the artist as Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe), citations of Roy Lichtenstein’s Pop art, 19th century Japanese prints, and cartoon characters such as Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Superman all hang out together in activities somewhat dubious and not altogether clear. There are also vignettes of famous paintings by Picasso, Willem de Kooning, Matisse, and Mondrian, juxtaposed with a motley crew of cartoon characters. (And yes, Shimomura does a mean interpretation of a de Kooning Woman painting).
Then there are the images that refer to Shimomura’s internment as a child in Minidoka, Idaho, in one of the concentration camps established by the U.S. government to hold Japanese Americans during World War II. Barbed wire, rice cookers, a baked potato (a nod to the state of Idaho’s main import), soldiers with guns, and the patched interior walls of the concentration huts are often visually quoted, along with stereotypical racist imagery of “Japs” common at that time.
Shimomura has always been fearless and open in his practice about what he admires and what he derides, and never more so than now. “It gets easier when you’re older,” he said in a recent interview, “and I’m so damn old now I’m bulletproof. Transcending trauma doesn’t mean forgetting about it. I flip back and forth in my art now as it makes sense to me when I’m making it.
“Also, the stimuli have to be stronger and bigger now just to get through my nerve endings. I’m prolific because I’ve exposed myself to a lot of things in life, including being a teacher for decades, and I’ve dealt with a lot of crazy things.”
Among the self-portraits in the exhibit, none is more entertaining than #48 in which Shimomura depicts himself as a natty-looking crow, representing what he describes as “myself on a bad day.” Images of windows also appear throughout, such as the ones in the internment camp huts, although Shimomura portrays an endless variety of vistas outside them. In a way, each of the paintings in this exhibition functions as a window opening to a slice of the enormous panorama of the artist’s life and fantasies.
Hung in a separate gallery is “Diary of an American Midwife: The Life and Events of Toku Shimomura 1888 – 1968,” a series of 16 paintings that portray the life story of Shimomura’s grandmother. They are painted in a similar manner to “100 More White Lies,” but the tone is very different. These works, which function perfectly as a graphic novel, are straightforward in their narrative, and each has a descriptive text that explains the action. From her life as a “photo bride” to her work as a midwife at the Minidoka camp, Toku Shimomura becomes a larger-than-life person almost physically present in the gallery. This series exists as one work of art, as it should; it clearly belongs in a museum anywhere in the world. It is the unique yet universal story of the struggles and triumphs of one immigrant woman that seems more pertinent now than ever.
“Roger Shimomura: ‘100 More White Lies’ and ‘Diary of an American Mid-Wife’” continues through Jan. 21 at Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art, 2004 Baltimore Ave. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. For more information, sherryleedy.com or 816.221.2626.