I have often told my students that if making art is of paramount importance in their lives and that if they are willing to commit themselves to hard work and maintaining an engaged mind, they will eventually be able to free themselves of everything they learned about art. I know from my experience that I have found this to be true.– Roger Shimomura
Living in Kansas since 1970 has not made Roger Shimomura soft. If anything the relatively bucolic setting of Middle America has sharpened his edge. His exhibition “Stereotypes and Admonitions” from 2003 lays out many of Mr. Shimomura’s encounters with the area’s latent (and patent) racism. For example:
In the early 1970s Roger and his colleague Mike Ott had adjoining studios in a building provided by the University of Kansas. Because of a faulty heating system, the interior room temperature during the winter months averaged about 90 degrees, making it unbearably hot. Despite daily calls to the maintenance office, the oppressive heat continued. The only way to combat this problem was to keep the windows open slightly, allowing the cold air from outside to cool the studio. One night, when Mike was out of town, the pilot light went out in Mike’s furnace, causing the temperature to drop. The water pipes froze and eventually burst, flooding his studio. When Roger went to his studio the next morning, he noticed the flooding and called Buildings & Grounds to report the incident.
Three hours later a repairman showed up at Roger’s studio and asked to see the damage. Roger showed him the flood in Mike’s studio, whereupon the repairman told Roger the pipes froze because the windows were left open. Roger said that he understood this but explained they were left open due of the unbearable heat caused by a dysfunctional thermostat. The repairman, in a raised voice, repeated his reasons why the pipes froze, whereupon Roger repeated his reasons why the windows were left open. The repairman, now highly agitated, asked Roger who he was. Roger explained he was a faculty member in the Art Department and that the room next door was the studio the University provided him with to do his artwork. The repairman asked to see Roger’s studio, looked in all of the rooms, then stormed out.
The next morning, Roger was notified through the Chancellor’s Office of an official report, filed by a worker from Buildings & Grounds, stating there was a Vietnamese student living illegally in a university building. The report went on to say this student was sleeping with his windows open at night, causing the pipes to freeze and burst. The worker’s report concluded by saying that despite his attempts to explain why the pipes burst, he did not think the student understood him because it appeared the student couldn’t comprehend English.
In response, Mr. Shimomura painted the brutal piece, No Speakee English, taking the racist’s point of view on the scene.
While it might tempt the more smug liberals of the world, thinking that such ideas exist only in backwater America misses the point. Mr. Shimomura’s work goes far beyond the ideas that rednecks and racists are bad. If anything, his work explores exactly how deep stereotyping runs in American democracy. It engages Walter Lippmann’s central thesis from his book, Public Opinion: namely, that mdoern democracy is based on stereotyping. “The stereotyped shapes lent to the world come not merely from art,” wrote Lippmann, “but from our moral codes and our social philosophies and our political agitations as well.”
Since Lippmann wrote that sentence, much of the exploration of stereotyping has come from sociology, psychology and social sciences, tinged with the revisionism of whatever period those explorers come from. Mr. Shimomura’s work approaches stereotyping from its original sense: as a visual reproduction of type from which other types are struck. Quoting Bernard Berenson, Lippmann wrote that “unless years devoted to the study of all schools of art have taught us also to see with our own eyes, we soon fall into the habit of moulding whatever we look at into the forms borrowed from the one art with which we are acquainted. There is our standard of artistic reality. Let anyone give us shapes and colors which we cannot instantly match in our paltry stock of hackneyed forms and tints, and we shake our heads at his failure to reproduce things as we know they certainly are, or we accuse him of insincerity.”
The political dimension of such work is obvious. Freeing oneself of everything one knows about art, as Mr. Shimomura says, is also to free oneself of everything one believes because of art. This is work not about race, but about racism as a visual phenomenon that reinforces psychological attitudes. Mr. Shimomura’s approach invokes the techniques of Pop Art but not for the same reason as a Roy Lichtenstein; rather, because by using the images of the American collective unconscious it allows him to speak directly to his audience, with a vocabulary they cannot help but understand.
In his earlier pieces from Yellow Terror, at the Wing Luke Museum, Mr. Shimomura was primarily interested in re-appropriating traditional images of pop culture. In a history that traditionally excluded Japanese Americans as anything other than WWII “Japs,” he sought to re-examine the visual stereotypes created by militaristic White America. In his latest exhibition at the Greg Kucera Gallery, An American Knockoff, Mr. Shimomura returns to that exhibition and its brutal juxtaposition of American type and Japanese stereotype. The link is especially noticeable in the series of miniatures, “American Lovers.” These 8 in. x 8 in. acrylic on canvas squares return to the forcefulness of his Yellow Terror pieces but there is a noticeable difference in these pieces. They deal directly with emotion, something Mr. Shimomura generally avoids in his work. In these miniatures one can find juxtapositions of all races and genders, some realistic, some typological, but all of them representing the idea of “love” in modern America. Viewing this work, it is hard not to think about the effect of Loving v. Virginia and the downfall of DOMA and Prop. 8 upon traditional visual representations of love, and its generally narrow historical stereotype.
Lest one think he is getting sentimental in his old age, however, the main body of the exhibition is dedicated to Mr. Shimomura’s tour through the pop culture landscape of today. As Mr. Shimomura says in his artist’s statement for the exhibition, “Far too many American-born citizens of Asian descent continue to be accepted as only ‘American knockoffs.’ This latest series of paintings is an attempt to ameliorate the outrage of these misconceptions by depicting myself battling those stereotypes or, in tongue-in-cheek fashion, becoming those very same stereotypes.”
In these pieces, Mr. Shimomura casts himself as both hero and villain. He paints himself as a character in dual roles: as an individual fighting against stereotypes and as a stereotype fighting for its place in the collective unconscious, perhaps a bit afraid of the imminent, new definitions of who we are as Americans that are surely coming–and in fact are already here.
While Seattle may lead the way in such progress, it is wise to avoid any sense of our region’s holy progressive politics. Seattle’s own history is checkered with brutality toward Asian Americans. Mr. Shimomura’s paintings are a subtle, if joyous, reminder that history is always present, and that those stereotypes are far from extinct.
An American Knockoff: Paintings August 22 – September 28, 2013 Opening reception and artist talk: Thursday, August 22, 6:30 pm at Greg Kucera Gallery, 212 Third Avenue S., Seattle 98104
Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net