Roger Shimomura: From Studio Art to Performance Art Ace

Shimomura’s artistic practice as a “Sansei,” or third-generation Japanese American preoccupied with the politics of identity, is reflected in the exhibit’s performances and paintings, including “Sansei Woman” (1980). (Spencer Museum of Art)

The Eminent Painter/Printmaker Brings Humor and Pathos to Painful and Forgotten Moments of American History in “Staging Shimomura” at the Spencer Museum of Art

Roger Shimomura, distinguished painter, printmaker and venerable educator, illuminates his uniquely American story of cultural difference in “Staging Shimomura,” a retrospective look at his lesser known performance art works, primarily from the peak home video era of the 1980s and 90s.

The exhibit at the Spencer Museum of Art is a gleaming example of the importance of the archive in exhibition making. From the diaries of the artist’s grandmother to videotapes of his performances, the events and constructions of the past provide rich source material for “Staging Shimomura,” organized by Kris Ercums, the Spencer’s curator of global contemporary and Asian art.

Curated excerpts of several video-documented performances in all their lo-res glory are greatly enriched by ephemera, including scripts, programs, costumes, masks, production props and photographs. Interesting and relevant inclusions from the Spencer’s permanent collection provide insight and historical context about everything from Japanese printmaking styles to 1960s Pop Art to Shimomura’s collaborations at the University of Kansas.

Several striking two-dimensional works on display demonstrate how Shimomura’s key themes link to and expand across artistic media. We see how the artist shifted from studio artist to interdisciplinary collaborator, experimenting with hybrid art forms bridging cultures and history — traditional Kabuki theater meets unruly contemporary performance art.

Much of the work stems from one vital archival source: decades of diaries written by the artist’s grandmother, Toku Machida Shimomura (1888-1968), from before, during and after her extended family’s incarceration in a Japanese American internment camp during World War II. Toku immigrated to Seattle in 1912 as a young bride and became an important member of the Japanese American community as a midwife and nurse. Her diaries, like her grandson’s visual art, communicate painful and forgotten moments of American history, memories distilled through the sharp lens of cultural difference and shared sameness.

Driven by a funky proto-hip-hop dance soundtrack with Kabuki musical accents, “Toku’s Dance” (1984) was choreographed and performed by Marsha Paludan, one of Shimomura’s most important collaborators, who interpreted Toku dancing dissonantly in traditional kimono and mask. (from the artist)

“It started in 1984 when I got my first video camera,” Shimomura explained in a 1996 lecture about his performance-based work. His new artistic tool/toy soon led to the coming out party for his mature performance art phase. Appropriately displayed on a small VHS monitor, “Toku’s Dance” was first performed in October of 1984 at a gallery in Lawrence, Kansas.

Driven by a funky proto-hip-hop dance soundtrack with Kabuki musical accents, the piece was choreographed and performed by Marsha Paludan, one of Shimomura’s most important collaborators, who animated and interpreted Toku as a recurring character. Here, dancing dissonantly in traditional kimono and mask, she cuts a contemporary figure silhouetted behind a Japanese Shōji screen. This mash-up of traditional Japanese culture with freestyle American pop culture is emblematic of Shimomura’s artistic practice as a “Sansei,” or third-generation Japanese American preoccupied with the politics of identity.

Shimomura ventured into full blown theatrical performance with the “The Seven Kabuki Plays Project” (1985-1987). Again working with Paludan and electronic music composer Jim Springer, Shimomura staged several dramatic moments from Toku’s 50 years as diarist.

In an excerpt from Act I we see Toku dressed in kimono and mask on a spare stage with a window and a tabletop radio. In the slow, stylized gestures of Japanese theater, we sense Toku’s surprise, anxiety and fear as she takes in the live radio broadcast of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous statement on the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor, “A date which will live in infamy.”

The martial synth soundtrack mixes in vocoder altered recordings of Toku’s actual voice. Through the stage window, a grim-faced Superman figure towers 20 feet above the stage, a proxy of American vengeance. The scene closes with Toku posed in silhouette next to a Christian cross suggesting a symbolic trial of faith.

Near the projected performance video is the 1983 acrylic on canvas source painting “Diary: Dec. 7, 1941 (Version #3),” in which Toku listens apprehensively to news about the attack on Pearl Harbor. Though expertly painted in the Japanese ukiyo-e style with strongly delineated forms and dense graphical composition filled with color and patterns, it feels quite frozen in comparison to the expanded time-based media articulated in the “Seven Kabuki Plays.”

We get a further sense of Shimomura’s stagecraft with a high-on-the-wall display of six kimonos used in the project flanked by the daunting Superman prop complete with scarlet cape, a favorite Pop Art subject of the artist. One can imagine how liberating it was for Shimomura the painter/printmaker to break out of pictorial space into the third and fourth dimensions of space and time to express his concepts and narratives in new ways.

Dark Humor, Identity Politics

“Staging Shimomura” traces the artist’s interest in performance, sound and the moving image back to his MFA days at Syracuse University in the late 1960s. We are treated to clips from his MFA performance lecture “The Pop Culture and Andy Warhol” including a forged interview and an imaginary “lost” Warhol film. Shimomura showed a Duchampian wit in these works, simultaneously humorous, deceptive and aware of Pop Art rooted in parody and performance.

Parody figured largely in works like “Trans-Siberian Excerpts,” written on the famous train journey from Beijing to Moscow, which Shimomura made at the height of the Cold War. The performances addressed large political, personal and poetic themes with puppets, pop music and lip-synching masked characters.

“California Sushi” (1988) was an autobiographical series of performances unpacking complex layers of identity politics with a dark sense of humor. (from the artist)

“California Sushi” was an autobiographical series of performances unpacking complex layers of identity politics with a dark sense of humor. The painful core comes from Shimomura’s personal experience of being an American but suffering treatment as an outsider. Performance works add cultural and historical nuance to surrounding paintings and prints like “Yellow Peril,” a large collage painting inspired by Shimomura’s personal collection of racist propaganda. When stereotypical representations are clustered tightly together, the exaggerated facial features and lurid color accumulate into a grotesque and malevolent impression.

Similarly, an image of a banana, famously used by Warhol or infamously by Maurizio Cattelan, acquires a disturbing meaning in Shimomura’s simple lithograph, “Banana.” The half-peeled banana operates as a racist epithet indicating that a person of Asian descent is a “race traitor” alienated from their cultural identity.

In the 1990s, Shimomura became more ambitious with multimedia theater works like “Last Sansei Story” and “Campfire Diary” documenting multiple generations of immigrant experience, life in the Minidoka internment camp and the shifting tides of cultural identity for Japanese Americans. His final performance works from 2001-02 returned to his beloved grandmother. The flamenco infused “La Carta” dealt with Toku’s last letter before her death, in which she outlined her life and accomplishments, while “Amnesia” addressed the Asian community’s collective forgetting of their racial and discriminatory history going back to the first waves of immigration to the United States in the 19th century.

The performances have aged quite well. The choreography and sound design retain a striking currency. Relatively simple staging kept the focus on the content of performative elements in each work. To Shimomura’s credit, he developed and presented nearly all of his performance works in collaboration with numerous colleges and universities across the state of Kansas.

At the back of the last gallery is arguably the most high-impact work in the exhibition, an immersive installation called “Relocation Luncheon,” cleverly updated from its original inception in 1996. The work simulates the bare-bones tar paper shacks of the Minidoka internment camp where Shimomura’s family endured detainment throughout WWII.

Inside is a rough picnic table graced by a vase with desert sagebrush and sand from Minidoka’s high desert location in Idaho. The views outside the tiny room from four windows (screens) reveal the ever-present silhouettes of the guard tower and taut barbed wire. They serve as a troubling framing device for passing seasonal changes of rain, snow, sunrise and full moon — familiar yet inaccessible to the incarcerated.

In the corner hangs a reproduction of the Federal Civilian Exclusion Order from 1942 announcing instructions for the detention of Japanese American citizens. To be seated in the darkened room, even for a few minutes, echoes our recent pandemic quarantine experiences: boredom, isolation, repetition and cabin fever alongside the relentless beauty and comfort of the natural cycles. We are compelled to wonder how this ever happened to American citizens. Yet here we are, and there they were.

Owing to the impeccable video and archival documentation of his performance art works, “Staging Shimomura” shows what happens when sound, staging and story supplement the visual medium. It could safely be called a transmedia exhibition in the way it traces Shimomura’s autobiographical themes and Pop Art iconography across media platforms. His hybrid cultural and artistic practices aim to raise our cultural sensitivity to those different from us, usually with a good dose of humor, sometimes with chilling pathos.

“Staging Shimomura” continues at the Spencer Museum of Art through June 21. Although the museum is closed through May 15 in response to the COVID-19 threat, it has made an app available with all the video content and a script from “Seven Kabuki Plays” viewable on digital devices. For more information, 785.864.4710 or www.spencerart.ku.edu.

Brian Hearn

Brian Hearn is an art advisor, appraiser, curator and writer interested in all things art, cave painting to contemporary.

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