#4 • Courtesy

In these 100 small paintings, each of them two square feet, Shimomura packs in his favorite subjects, as though he cut up and tossed all his previous paintings in the air, letting them land where they wanted to. See #4, “Roger in mask /pop art wood, brushes, horseshoe,” in which we see a pop art painting cut up in pieces and hanging from the ceiling.

The artist specializes in upsetting our expectations as well as our worldviews. Shimomura began collecting comic books when he was very young and the contradictions between those superheroes like Superman, whom he admired unreservedly, and  the Japanese American experience in an incarceration camp during World War II, is a central theme throughout his work. He lived in a camp as a child, though the trauma stayed with him.

In these small paintings, Shimomura continues to juxtapose comic book characters, animé, details from iconic pop artists like Lichtenstein and Warhol, and references to the camps.

The contrast of efforts to live “normally” in the camps with dances or barbecues, and the reality of the barbed wire enclosing the internees in rows of small cheap shacks is jolting. People inside and outside the barbwire live in drastically different worlds, oblivious to one another, but separated here by wire thin space.

In a surprising number of these works there is a specific reference to the plywood walls or barbed wire of the camps. But in many of them, space is shallow, expanded only by windows, outside of which the “view” is stopped by flat, modernist paintings. It suggests the claustrophobic experience of being detained.

#28 • Courtesy

In #28, “Soldier aiming machine gun,” the gun seems to point (out, in?), toward the desert and the barbed wire, but is actually entrapped by the flat horizontal space. As in many of these works, it is ambiguous who or what is inside or outside.

Another striking juxtaposition is between mainstream ”blond girl” culture and reference to the camps, as in #30 “Lichtenstein Girl with Beach Ball at Minidoka,” where she jumps above a fictitious body of water in the foreground. Quotes from Lichtenstein’s paintings are a perfect stand in for “all-American” culture.

A frequent theme is the juxtaposition of white and Asian characters, as in #86 “Geisha and Jane Fonda” or #89 “Geisha and Liz.” The elaborately garbed geisha stands in the background in the first, while Fonda’s carefully beautified persona dominates the work. In the second, Warhol’s dark image of Liz Taylor sits in the background and a geisha’s head appears in the foreshortened foreground.

#32 • Courtesy

Soldiers appear in many guises, threatening, mouth open eating beans, shooting, leering at us, confronting geisha.

Shimomura himself appears in eight of the pieces, becoming more outrageous with each one. Near the end of the sequence we have “Roger sticks out his tongue,” and “Roger’s extreme close up,” both not quite funny. We feel the real pain. He wears a pandemic mask in #4 and #32, as well as a Muslim skull cap in #76.

The artist Yasuo Kuniyoshi, another Japanese-American painter, appears in several: in one he looks like Marilyn Monroe, #92; or in the bizarre #95 “Tied Up Scrooge, McDuck  Geisha, and Kuniyoshi,” a combination that for some reason made me feel very sad.   

Shimomura emphasized in his address to the College Art Association in 2002 and in much of his other writing that his work is based on his own experiences.

His awareness of the permanent distance between Japanese experiences and American pop culture caused by racism, vividly appears through the pop characters and the quotes from Warhol and Lichtenstein. Animé characters seem to be coming to the rescue.

#95 • Courtesy

One of my favorites is Sailor Moon, a blonde animé character, boldly striding through Lichtenstein brushstrokes in #49.

Sex laces through many of these images, with close ups of figures making love, probably drawn from the less known lascivious Ukiyo-e prints. But the geishas are strong: a Geisha staves off three (predatory) young white boys with the projecting combs of her headdress. 

Shimomura has been producing these crazy awesome combinations of humor, irony, and deadly seriousness for decades. 

Now the next generation of Japanese artists, like Michelle Kumata, are creating art that focus on their own family’s experience as strawberry farmers in Bellevue. Kumata herself is further removed from the internment, but is still deeply affected by it. It reminds us that very young children can be affected for life by early trauma. Roger Shimomura is fortunate that he can express it in painting.   

‘More Little White Lies’ is showing at the Greg Kucera Gallery, Seattle, from February 15 – March 20, 2024. 

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