Exhibition Essay Tomokazu Matsuyama, Oh, Magic Night

Lauren Every-Wortman, HOCA Foundation, March 19, 2017

The title of Tomokazu Matsuyama’s solo exhibition Oh Magic Night—which sounds like o-maji-nai in Japanese, meaning “good-luck charm”—reflects the dual meaning of his oeuvre, and attempts to reveal the cultural allusions embedded in his works. Matsuyama’s practice can be seen as an evolution of the well-established genre of appropriation art, following in a long line of postmodern contemporary artists who drew inspiration and direct imagery from the world around them. As defined by art historian and critical theorist John Welchman, “the term ‘appropriation’ stands for the relocation, annexation or theft of cultural properties—whether objects, ideas or notations—associated with the rise of European colonialism and global capital.”[1]


Although “appropriation art” is a term most associated with globalization in the mid-to-late 20th century, in reference to Matsuyama’s work it’s appropriate to look back well into the beginning of the European colonial era, when artistic practices and ideas from the East were first brought to the West.[2] This exchange of artistic ideas and forms is particularly obvious in the well-recognized impact of Japanese woodblock prints as a catalyst for the development of impressionism in the late 19th century, after the first exhibition of Japanese art at the Paris International Exhibition of 1867.[3]


Known as ukiyo-e or ‘“pictures of the floating world,”’ Japanese woodblock prints from the 17th to 20th centuries were an accessible form of art, featuring popular images of actors, courtesans, landscapes, and interior scenes. Monet’s 1876 painting La Japonaise, which in content and technique resembles a genre of erotic geisha paintings popular in France at the time, is a good illustration of the most stereotypical appropriation of Japanese art by Western culture.[4] In fact, the appropriation of line, color, and spatial technique from the Japanese woodblock aesthetic can be traced in Western canons, from impressionism to modern art.


However, Tomokazu Matsuyama’s approach to art is a more nebulous form of appropriation. Raised in both Japan and the United States, Matsuyama brings a unique bicultural approach to subject matter and style. His oeuvre is a conscious, introspective response to his upbringing and the impact of globalization on cultural identity, as much inspired by his graphic design studies at New York’s Pratt Institute as by his favorite manga tomes from childhood. Appropriating from multiple cultures simultaneously in an attempt to gain control over the ubiquitous colonial narratives of East and West, Matsuyama’s work undermines the hierarchy of dominant and subordinate cultural norms.


For this reason, it’s difficult to place Matsuyama into specific canons of contemporary Eastern or Western art. Identifiable elements of pop culture are coupled with references to masters of both Eastern and Western canons. His work reflects obvious influences from the highbrow Kanō school, a dominant style of painting in Japan from the 15th to 18th centuries that was influenced by Chinese painting, but used a more brightly colored and firmly outlined style for decorations of the nobility’s castles. The style was supported by the shogunate and, thus, was essentially the official school of art in Japan at the time.


This style is reflected in Matsuyama’s brightly colored and strongly outlined forms, and thematically in his landscape compositions. However, underneath these layers, Matsuyama paints a particular homage to specifically American styles of painting (such as abstract expressionism), and introduces motifs and patterns from European fashion and interior design through the ages. In the tradition of the Japanese Superflat movement, his work reflects the dichotomy of high and low art, and speaks to the populist notions of contemporary urban culture, but his work is less preoccupied with the specifics of Japan and more on the impact of appropriation between East and West. In essence, Matsuyama is not a Japanese artist referencing American culture, nor is he an American artist referencing Japanese culture; he is something of an amalgamation of the two.


By relying heavily on the practice of appropriation, Matsuyama’s oeuvre has become an embodiment of global exchange and a visual manifestation of the fragmentation of common contemporary experience. Julia Kristeva, a Bulgarian-French philosopher and literary critic, argued in a 1986 interview that artistic appropriation of popular images was progressing “from resounding in a void of simulations” to something more profound. In Kristeva’s opinion, postmodernism “may actually have a reintegrative function, drawing together the fragments of mediated culture in an ‘eclectic unity.’”[5]


Drawing on Kristeva’s analysis, Matsuyama’s work reflects an evolution of postmodern appropriation. Seamlessly blending traditional Japanese folklore, the severity of abstract expressionism, and the extravagance of global popular culture, Matsuyama uses appropriation with a sensitivity to cultural roots in an attempt to mend our fragmented contemporary experience, and to question assumptions of hierarchy and homogeneity in post-colonial society.


Mythological Guardians

In exploring themes for his artwork, Matsuyama is interested in concepts that are ubiquitous across cultures and historical time periods, allowing him to draw upon varied references—a practice that reflects his desire to blend multicultural histories. In a nod to the samurai culture of Japan, and the age of imperialism, Matsuyama created a body of work focused on the legendary machoism of the horse and rider, the guardians of both feudal Japan and the American West. In Japan, popular films romanticized the exploits of the samurai, such as Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 epic Seven Samurai. Samurai were middle- and upper-class warriors of medieval and early-modern Japan, and were respected and feared as guardians of the country, fighting to the death at the command of their feudal lords. They were often pictured on horseback in popular and artistic depictions. Similarly, in American culture, the image of manifest destiny and the domination culturally, politically, and physically of the land is embodied in the trope of the cowboy on his horse. This figure of almost mythological power was notably present in contemporary culture, as in the popular spaghetti-western films of the mid-20th century. Cowboys were often depicted as the guardians of American land and values against the “savage” native people.


Matsuyama appropriates popular depictions of these guardians in his series Runnin’ Deep, which attempts to situate the narrative of samurai and cowboys on horseback in the same magical realm as mythological beasts guarding sacred sites. Works such as Long Day’s Over When the Wheel Turns (2015) reveal Matsuyama’s characteristic blend of references—riders in American Western-style button-ups gallop past a distinctly Japanese house as Jackson Pollock-like snow sprinkles in the foreground and Japanese cranes fly out of the frame. Figures on horseback guard a home, which is situated in an imaginary landscape that blends characteristics of the cowboy’s West and the samurai’s East. The riders sit on horses whose coats reveal an underlay of abstract expressionist gestures, and whose cartoonish features display similar characteristics to the magical kirin of Eastern mythology.

Image Reference — “Long Days Over When the Wheel Turns” 2015


The kirin (麒麟), as portrayed by Matsuyama in other works, is a chimerical beast from Japanese and Chinese mythology resembling a deer or horse, with scales like a dragon’s covering its body. The magical creature is thought to appear as a guardian at the birth and death of important leaders as a symbol of protection and good luck. Like kirin, koma inu (狛犬) are noble holy animals, which are usually employed as guardians of holy areas and always appear in pairs—one with the mouth open and one with the mouth closed. Symbolically in the East, these creatures represent yin and yang, or death and life. In the West, they can be equated with alpha and omega—the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, used in Christianity as symbolic of the concept that God is eternal.


In the same way that Matsuyama deconstructs the power of the guardians on horseback, the artist’s depictions of kirin and koma inu—in bright, playful colors that are reminiscent of kitschy children’s designs—question the power of the mythological guardians. In both the East and the West, creatures are given mythological importance and value based on their power and ability to protect. Matsuyama questions the somber concept of the “guardian” through his playful juxtaposition of the cowboy/samurai trope, mythological creatures, and the bright psychedelic colors and cartoonish features of the figures themselves. By using a pop aesthetic, he indicates the cognitive distance between mythological symbolism and contemporary culture, and blurs the distinctions between valued icons of East and West.


Fictional Tableaux

Matsuyama’s practice of blending appropriated sources is clearly evident in his large tableaux paintings and sculptures. These elaborate “historical” scenes are composed of figures such as those found in woodblock prints from Japan, traditional oil paintings of landscapes and interiors, and Western commemorative sculptures. Matsuyama uses a traditionally Eastern flattened perspective for his compositions, softening featuring landscapes or interior spaces like those found in ukiyo-e prints, and adds traceable elements of specific stories, artworks, and cultural references.


In his piece Whatever the Playboy Wrote, It Was as Good as the Great Waves (2014), Matsuyama seamlessly combines floral vases made by famous Japanese ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Hiroshige, gingham plaid from a 2014 editorial in Vogue magazine, and Pablo Picasso’s Seated Woman with Wrist Watch (1932). The seated character holding a book in the center of the composition is a direct reference to Tsukioka Yoshitoshi’s Kenshin Watching Geese in the Moonlight (1886), part of a woodblock print series that depicts figures from Japanese and Chinese legends, literature, and history, and was created by Yoshitoshi during the Meiji era when “Westernization” was actively promoted by the shogunate. Upon this background is a distinctly American layer of falling snow a-la-Jackson Pollock—a knock against the strict precision of Japanese printing and a nod to the machoism of Western ideology.

Image reference - “Whatever the Playboy Wrote, It Was As Good As The Great Waves” 2014


In this vein, Matsuyama creates flattened perspectives of classical sculptures merging the Eastern aesthetic of thick-outlined figures with the Western motifs of commemorative sculpture made in honor of important persons or events. His immersive installation High Life No Man’s Land (2017) is informed by diverse art and historical references, but directly appropriates the composition and imagery of The Old Dragoons of 1850 by the American artist Frederic Remington, a bronze masterpiece that symbolizes the American spirit of manifest destiny. The original sculpture features a battle between American cavalry men (known as dragoons) and Plains Indians, a typical colonial narrative of American history.


The mirrored aesthetic of Matsuyama’s sculpture mimics the high shine of contemporary American cities that displaced the native lands. At the same time, the finish acts to distort the sharp outlines of the figures, allowing them to morph and blend with one another, and with the environment around them. From one angle, the clean outline emulates the aesthetic of the woodblock prints by Katsushika Hokusai depicting samurai on horseback, from another the flattened volumes of Roy Lichtenstein sculptures, and from yet another it seems to dissolve into abstraction. While Remington and Hokusai remain the dominant references in this work, Matsuyama also plays around with allusions to pop culture, such as the manga Yu-Gi-Oh! and Playmobil toys. By blending appropriated content from historical narratives and light-hearted popular culture, Matsuyama undermines the colonial narrative of the original sculpture, and questions hierarchies entrenched by colonial attitudes.

Image Reference - “High Life No Man’s Land” 2017


Ornate Abstractions

While narrative works remain the bulk of Matsuyama’s oeuvre, he has developed numerous series of works that abstract the original intentions of his appropriated source materials. Like his figurative works, Matsuyama’s abstractions continue to confront social fragmentation caused by globalization and question the assumed hierarchies of postcolonial society through the fusion of appropriated historical and contemporary content. By recontextualizing his appropriated source material, he removes them from their original intended purpose or “genres.” He deconstructs the original intent and form of decorative wallpapers, collectible porcelain figurines, and abstract expressionist paintings, creating metaphorical combinations built on intricate visual references.


In his BFF series, Matsuyama appropriates coupled figures from a 17th-century shunga book censored by the publisher when it was printed in 1977. Shunga, which translates literally into “spring pictures,” were made by celebrated artists such as Utamaro and Hokusai in the popular ukiyo-e style from 1600 to around 1900. Shunga was often humorous and celebrated sexual pleasure for both men and women, usually featuring couples in the act of lovemaking and often with explicit genitalia. It was officially banned in Japan in 1722 during a time of government-promoted Westernization. Though the work continued to be produced, images of genitals and pubic hair were censored for centuries—covered with white boxes or just completely erased.


The ban was finally lifted in 1991, and many famous shunga were reprinted in original form without censors. According to Japanese scholar Haga Toru, shunga should be revered as “the record of the erotic paradise that was Japan before foreign intervention.”[6] Ironically, as the Japanese dismissed this unique form of art at home, the images made their way west and inspired renowned artists such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Pablo Picasso, and John Singer Sargent.[7]


Expressing this unique cultural exchange, Matsuyama combines the specific form of popularized censored shunga figures with a digital vintage floral pattern, Tiffany’s Garden Medium Antique Floral Fabric, found royalty-free from Getty Images. In a similar way, Matsuyama decontexualizes collectible porcelain figurines, meant as decorative household items, by simplifying their shape and painting them in the sharp, brightly colored polyurethane of hot-rod muscle cars. Porcelain figurines created by artisans in Europe, such as Dresden and Meissen figurines, became popular around the 18th century, and artisan factories based in Europe and America produced some of the most collectible items. However, after World War II, many began importing cheaper versions from Japan.[8] This “made-in-Japan” trend was one of the early manifestations of modern globalization.


Matsuyama references this trend in the enlargement and coloration of the figurines. By making the outlines less sharp and the coloring more kitsch, Matsuyama highlights the consumable nature of the object, while at the same time placing it in the context of a high-art environment. In another series, Matsuyama does the opposite, taking the sacred act of abstract expressionism and combining it with an almost profane sense of reality. Matsuyama’s restrained abstract compositions pay homage to Jackson Pollock, but instead of allowing the gestural underlay of the paintings to remain spontaneous and untouched, he confines them into mandalic patterns, referencing the origami cranes made in the East as good-luck charms. In this way, his abstract works have a concrete meaning in a way abstract expressionism never sought to pursue.


Through his work, Matsuyama has found a way to blend both characteristics of his being. By giving equal weight to the trite concepts of the energetic psyche of the West and the reflective nature of the East, he undermines the colonial assumptions of hierarchy and attempts to mend the fissure of East and West, forming a unifying dialogue for contemporary global society.

Image Reference - “You Need to Come Closer”

[1] Welchman, John. Art After Appropriation: Essays on Art in the 1990s (Amsterdam/London: G + B Arts International/Routledge, 2001), 7.

[2] I have chosen to use the terms “East” and “West” with some reservation, as the terms are a construct of colonization. In this context, however, it is useful to denote the different cultures that the artist is drawing from.

[3] Bromfield, David 'Japanese Art: Monet and the formation of Impressionism', A. Milner and D. Gerstle (eds.), Recovering the Orient: Artists, Scholars, Appropriations, (Switzerland: Harwood Academic Publishers GmbH, 1994), 20.

[4]Ibid, 40.

[5] Welchman, 40.

[6] Mostow, Joshua S., Norman Bryson, and Maribeth Graybill. Gender and Power in the Japanese Visual Field (Honolulu : University of Hawaii Press, 2003), 6.

[7] Weigand,Ellen Von. “Shunga: Japanese Erotica Comes to the British Museum” Culture Trip. Accessed January 12, 2017. https://theculturetrip.com/asia/japan/articles/shunga-japanese-erotica-comes-to-the-british-museum

[8] "Figurines." Collectors Weekly. Accessed January 12, 2017. http://www.collectorsweekly.com/figurines/overview.

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