If you’d been taken to an internment camp at age 3, taunted for your Japanese-American ethnicity at age 10, served in the U.S. Army after college and been asked as an established artist if you only painted geishas, you’d probably have a lot to say about racial stereotypes in America.
That would be Roger Shimomura, whose show “An American Knockoff” has just opened at Tacoma Art Museum. Filling the largest gallery with a stunning body of paintings that punch into prejudice with a pop-art sensibility, it’s a show that — in an ideal world — shouldn’t need to happen. But as recent events show, America has a long way to go on this issue, and Shimomura articulates our conflicts, preconceptions and cultural myopia with a comic-book clarity that’s sorely needed.
A Seattle native, his family was taken in 1942 to Minidoka Relocation Center in southern Idaho during the World War II era of anti-Japanese paranoia.
Shimomura, who now lives in Kansas, still comes back here often enough for TAM to claim him as a Northwest artist. A comics collector from early on, Shimomura straddles many worlds: He has a design degree from the University of Washington and a painting master’s of fine arts from Syracuse University; he’s also known for film, performance art and music.
The museum show, organized by Washington State University’s art museum, picks up in the 1970s and ’80s, when Shimomura began transforming his crystal-clear Ukiyoe woodcut style into a blend of Western and Eastern pop art. These works open the TAM show, to the left of the door: Warhol quotes and Japanese samurai mingling in collage with rice cookers, lipstick and Japanicized Roman lettering.
But then “American Knockoff” jumps right into the past six years and spreads over the huge gallery with an astonishing breadth — more than 60 paintings — and depth, as Shimomura takes on racial stereotypes literally, his self-portrait fighting them in every work. TAM curator Rock Hushka has grouped the work according to the cultural concepts involved, and it’s a good plan, increasing in confrontation as you go clockwise around the room.
The first thing that hits you is his “Imposter” series. “Japanese Imposter” has you looking up the thonged backside of a sumo wrestler, with Shimomura as another staring straight into your face. There’s also Shimomura as Astro-Boy, his wrinkly face comic with the pointy Manga hairstyle. Is that Japanese enough for you? Shimomura also addresses those Americans (particularly during the World War II internments) who claimed not to tell Japanese and Chinese apart. In the “Chinese Imposter” series, Shimomura poses as a Chinese baby in a chubby group portrait complete with black tiles and red chrysanthemums, as a triumphant Chinese World War II soldier, in a Communist Youth rally despite his Minidoka tattoo. It’s all in Shimomura’s flat, pop-art style, the saturated colors singing and the lines unequivocal.
Then the paintings begin to take on American stereotypes. In “Halloween,” 1940s kids torment the one who was forced to wear the “Jap mask,” with shadowy parents standing in the blackness behind, responsible for passing on prejudice and hatred. In “American vs. American,” Shimomura pits himself against superheroes: as a samurai fighting Wonder Woman (“kapow!”), as a karate sensai punching Superman against the Washington skyline, and as his 21st century self vanquishing World War II-era propaganda images of “Yellow Peril” demons. No space is wasted: Here there’s a scattering of cultural images (more rice cookers and lipstick), there a gas mask going “PLING!”
The comic-book scenes still have some wit to them, though a sharp, dry one. But in the “Minidoka” series, the pop art gets serious. A double portrait of two girls in 1940s dresses and red lipstick, one blonde and white and in front of a barbed wire fence, the other dark-haired and Asian-featured and behind it. Black, snarling guards dominate a camp scene in intense foreshortening; there are images of childhood camp memories, a dish of sushi offered as resistance to derision.
And in a meditation on the lasting harm of hateful images, Shimomura paints himself in the center of a manic, bestial canvas of World War II anti-Japanese faces, greenish-yellow and raining down like bombs; paints another Japanese comic figure falling into a flag-net held by cartoon ducks Hughie, Dewie and Louie; paints himself both kick-fighting Bugs Bunny and Popeye and with his face superimposed on theirs — fighting demons by becoming them. It’s a new way of looking at these icons (including Gilbert Stuart’s George Washington, now with Shimomura’s wry eyes and forehead creases) that opens your eyes to their insidious visual power. What is “American?” And what is “American enough?”
But the most thought-provoking work in “American Knockoff” belongs, in fact, to TAM’s own collection. In a nod to newspaper grids of fallen soldiers in World War II, “Minidoka No. 5” turns racist media assumptions on their heads by turning those faces into those of Japanese-American soldiers who gave their lives in service to the U.S. But Shimomura has painted them as Ukiyoe samurai characters, peering out with exaggerated surprise or ferocity. It’s a brilliant work that links both countries, both warrior traditions, both types of media, in a single visual stroke.
The power of Shimomura as an artist is not just that he can voice a cultural discrimination into a challenge for us all. It’s also that he can do it in a language rich in symbolism that is at once poetic and instantly understandable. Tacoma Art Museum has given that voice a microphone. It’s now up to us to listen.