Tacoma Art Museum recently opened a show of work by the Seattle-born artist Roger Shimomura: “Roger Shimomura – An American Knockoff.”
Shimomura’s prints and acrylic paintings are so big, colorful, lively and seemingly playful that the show gives the impression of stepping inside of a comic book.
But peeling back the layers of Shimomura’s work quickly brings one face to face with an artist that means serious business. Shimomura is very deftly making statements about racism, stereotypes and identity. He does the trick so masterfully that it is very easy to become troubled by what Shimomura is showing via the seemingly playful and frivolous visual language of pop art.
Born in Seattle just a few years prior to the outbreak of WWII, Shimomura was just three years old when he and his family were rounded up with other Japanese Americans. They were incarcerated at Camp Minidoka in Hunt, Idaho. After the war, Shimomura returned to Seattle. In 1961, he graduated from the University of Washington with a BA in commercial design. After a stint in the U.S. military, Shimomura attended Syracuse University where he earned his MFA in painting. From 1969 until 2004 Shimomura taught at the School of Fine Art at University of Kansas. He continues to split his time between New York, Seattle and Lawrence, Kansas, and attends annual reunions at Camp Minidoka.
Shimomura’s pop art style is employed to devastating effect in a series of paintings in which the artist depicts himself engaged in combat against the kind of grotesque visual stereotypes that were prevalent in the anti-Japanese propaganda of the war years. Shimomura also depicts himself fighting characters that stand in for American mass culture, like Superman, Popeye or various Disney characters. In these scenes of combat, Shimomura presents himself as a samurai warrior or as a practitioner of martial arts (thus playing on the stereotype that all Asians are somehow genetically gifted in martial arts).
In another series of works, Shimomura juxtaposes himself against things Chinese: he shows himself as Chairman Mao or as a Mandarin courtier. “American vs. Chinese” shows the artist striking a kung fu pose directed at a silver screen image of martial arts idol Bruce Lee. Here Shimomura is playing against a tendency in American culture to lump all Asians together. There is an inability or unwillingness to distinguish between different national groups, or to understand the diverse histories of Asian civilizations. “Chinese” and “Asian” are often used interchangeably as a tag for anyone of Asian descent.
A third group of images in the show are derived from Shimomura’s memories of childhood in the incarceration camp. Barbed wire is everywhere. Visually it is both a decorative pattern and an ominous reminder that quaint, domestic scenes are taking place under condition of forced confinement.
“American Infamy #5” is perhaps the most ominous of this series. Cartoonish, black clouds hover over a trio of comic book American soldiers – standard issue G.I. Joes. They are guarding an internment camp. The machine gun is not pointed outward, but inward at those below who are arranged in little vignettes: people involved in their day-to-day activities.
American media does not show a culture that has always been diverse and complex. Rather, it is a flattering mirror showing the majority the way it likes to see itself: a Disney/Norman Rockwell version of America. The mass media culture of America has rarely given a reflection of the lives of members of non-majority social groups that have always been part of the overall fabric of American social existence. These groups have always existed and flourished, but have rarely been acknowledged by a market-driven media that exists to serve the financial interests of its advertisers by playing to the vanity, the preferences and the prejudiced assumptions of the majority audience. It is a numbers game that has excluded non-majority parts of the cultural fabric.
Shimomura is playing one of the vital roles of the artist. He is making his own mirror and reflecting back images of his own experience. It is an act of generosity that allows others to catch a glimpse of something different and thus gain a little more understanding that will hopefully add to the overall stock of a multicultural mode of wisdom.
Shimomura’s pop-art style is the perfect vehicle for his message, which is heavily based on imagery that bubbles up from popular media culture. Shimomura’s wit, humor and insight are honed as sharp as – dare I say it – a samurai sword.
“An American Knockoff” runs through Sept. 13. For further information visit http://www.TacomaArtMuseum.org.