Based in Toronto, Ontario, Nancy Matsumoto is a writer and editor who covers sustainable agriculture, food, sake, arts and culture.

Roger Shimomura, Artist, Collector

Earlier this week, I attended the opening of Japanese American artist Roger Shimomura’s exhibit at the Asian/Pacific/American Institute’s new digs at 8 Washington Mews, a part of New York University.

"Kansas Samurai," 2004.

The Seattle-born Sansei(third-generation Japanese American), who’s spending this year as artist-in-residence at A/P/A, has made a name for himself as a painter, printmaker, and theater artist. His visual work speaks the language of pop art, comic books, Japanese wood-block prints, and manga, but their bright, shiny surfaces upend expectations by delivering sly doses of subversive commentary on race and exclusion.

The A/P/A exhibit focuses on Shimomura’s screen prints and lithographs, along with selections he’s made from his collection of pop and kitsch Americana. The two parts of his life, his work and collecting (everything from mutant peanut shells to wind-up toys, Disney memorabilia, and folk art) have informed and shaped each other, Shimomura says.

In Kansas Samurai, Shimomura depicts himself as a samurai warrior, defiant in the face of rejection by mainstream culture, represented Dick Tracy, Popeye, Donald Duck, and Pluto, whose backs are turned to him.

The artist admitting to his addiction to e-Bay, the digital era's gift to collectors.

“My life can be measured by what I was collecting,” he told the gathered crowd, noting that he amassed his first collection, of soda bottle caps, by making frequent trips to the neighborhood grocery store on his handmade scooter. “We’d buy drink flavors that we would never normally think of drinking just to get the different caps,” he explained, which he and his friends affixed to their jackets like badges.

In graduate school at Syracuse, Shimomura began collecting advertising displays of food items, and still relishes the memory one of his biggest coups, a 7-foot-tall cardboard ice cream cone that was the envy of his art school classmates.

For the exhibit, Shimomura included his copy of a movie poster for the 1959 film noir, The Crimson Kimono, which depicts James Shigeta kissing Victoria Shaw underneath the headline, “YES, this is a beautiful American girl in the arms of a Japanese boy!” Also on display are a giant plastic Donald Duck, a Chinese ceramic Minnie and Mickey mouse, and a Superman trophy.

Geta salt and pepper shakers; note holes in front for shaking.

Shimomura spent several of his early childhood years in the Minidoka, Idaho U.S. government prison camp during World War II, and the camps and their barbed wire are recurring motifs in his work. Included in the exhibit is a pair of Shimomura’s over 50 salt-and-pepper shaker sets in the form of geta, the traditional Japanese wooden clogs that prison camp inmates fashioned out of found wood to keep their feet above the muck during trips to the communal lavatories and showers.

In American Guardian, a guard in a Japanese prison camp, machine gun between his knees, observes a small-boy version of the artist himself riding a tricycle.

"American Guardian," 2007

Another source of inspiration were the 56 years’ worth of diaries kept by his grandmother, who arrived in America as a picture bride and worked for decades as a midwife. Shimomura had parts of her diaries translated and then incorporated into scripts for performance art pieces he staged during his long tenure as art professor at the University of Kansas. He included one of those diaries in the exhibit, part of a trove of personal papers that is being collected by the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art.

When an audience member asked whether incorporating racist images and monikers in his work undermines attempts to enlighten the public about their offensiveness, he replied, “To make it go away, you have to make it appear first...in some ways I am bringing things up that are painful in order to make them go away.”

"Enter the Rice Cooker," 1994.

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Prints of Pop (& War)

Curated by Roger Shimomura

A/P/A Institute at NYU, Gallery

8 Washington Mews

New York, NY 10003

(212) 992-9635

Through May 9, 2013

Tossing and Turning at Bedtime

Exploring the Borderlands of Race, Nation, Sex and Gender