Roger Shimomura’s acrylic paintings skewering Asian racial stereotypes have always been lively.
But in his new show at Greg Kucera Gallery, he’s outdone himself with the crazed kinetic energy he brings to the canvas.
Almost all the works in “An American Knockoff” are action-packed self-portraits, pitting Shimomura against Disney characters, traditional Japanese warriors or Chinese Red Army heroes (to name just a few). They’re some of the funniest things he’s done — and the most biting.
The show is museum-worthy, and an expanded version of it is headed to the Washington State University Museum of Art in late 2014 and to the Tacoma Art Museum and the Hallie Ford Museum (in Salem, Ore.) in 2015. But that’s too long to wait to catch this exhibit.
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In his artist’s statement, Shimomura is plain-spoken about what he’s up to. Born and raised in Seattle, he has lived and taught in Kansas for the last 40 years where, in contrast to the West Coast, “the Asian American presence is still somewhat of a rarity,” he writes.
“I have found it to be routine to be asked what part of Japan I am from or how long I have lived in this country,” he adds. “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.”
Shimomura’s compositional eye is at its peak in these works. In the past, some of his crowded, cartoon-style canvases have felt cluttered. But in “American Knockoff,” a sort of flamboyant minimalism has come to the fore. Distilling his method to its essence, he pulls off a ton of tricks — both visually and in terms of satirical tone — with a few deftly placed lines or simply juxtaposed fields of color.
“American in Disguise” may be the touchstone work in the show. It shows Shimomura giving the viewer a probing skeptical look as he parts the kimono he’s wearing to reveal an all-American Superman costume underneath it. In other self-portraits, he poses as a grinning George Washington, complete with powdered wig (“General Shimomura”), or as classic cartoon characters (Goofy in “Roger the Goof,” Porky Pig in “Roger Pig” and Dick Tracy, looking film-noir sharp, in “Roger Tracy”).
These portrait riffs on American pop icons are striking — but it’s the “action” canvases that really dazzle.
“American vs. Japanese #3” shows Shimomura sending a quartet of Japanese stereotypes flying into the air with one mighty karate kick, while in “American Beats American,” he’s the one taking the pounding from a small army of Disney characters.
“American vs. American” lampoons some supposed ethnic tensions in Shimomura’s own marriage. It depicts his wife — artist Janet Davidson-Hues in “Wonder Woman” guise — delivering a powerful punch to a reeling Shimomura, who’s in elaborate Samurai get-up.
Not every piece is a self-portrait. A suite of 22 small paintings, dubbed “American Lovers,” explores every variety of gender and racial combination imaginable among couples who are kissing, cuddling, meaningfully eyeing each other or getting it on. The tone of these is simultaneously arch and generously, genially inclusive.
“An American Knockoff” is the real thing — and guaranteed to knock you out.
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org