Exhibition Essay Tomokazu Matsuyama: No Place Like Home

Hollis Goodall, Zidoun-Bossuyt Gallery, September 28, 2018

Tomokazu Matsuyama’s joyfully colored paintings act as cultural maps, in which he locates seemingly random images as signals of the layered times, places and impressions of memory. Having never had a true home town, Matsuyama has always felt displaced. With his childhood split between Japan and the United States, he is in the advantageous position of physically representing the urban “one-world” blend of cultures becoming pervasive in the 21st century. In his painting, he splices images into the composition, edited from his broad pool of aesthetic encounters—historical and contemporary, profound and banal.


The underlayer of Matsuyama’s painting is abstract, with graded colors whose tones conjure pop graphics of the 1960s and 1970s. Matsuyama’s college training was as a graphic designer and his dynamic coloration, additive layering, and juxtapositions of clearly delineated motifs against softly air-brushed passages call to mind mid-century graphics by artists Awazu Kiyoshi (Japan, 1929-2009), Yokoo Tadanori (Japan, b. 1936) and others.


Over his abstract graded and dripped ground, Matsuyama overlays a composition drawn from fashion or shelter magazine pages. These artificially clean layouts with their air-brushed models serve as a neutral framework into which he inserts the points of his cultural map. All elements in the finished picture share equivalent importance, their presence alone giving them significance within a broader snapshot of memory.

In “Welcome to the Jungle,” the female figure’s personality is de-emphasized through her simplified features, and instead the pattern of her dress takes precedence. Matsuyama selected this fabric from a print by Yōshū Chikanobu (Japan, 1838-1912), a late artist of the ukiyo-e (floating world picture) tradition. Chikanobu designed prints for both domestic and foreign consumption during the Victorian era, when massing layered patterns was the height of style. White herons amid snow-covered reeds represent purity in Japanese art, and, in an odd play, Chikanobu dresses a courtesan in this garb. Matsuyama treats this fabric more as a fashion element contrasting 1870s style with a contemporary air-brushed robe with black accents. At present, this form of appropriation often draws criticism if one quotes from a culture other than one’s own. As Matsuyama has experienced a blend of cultures in his life to this point, he can more freely select from a broader scope of imagery than one who employs images from another culture without understanding their meaning and history. A casual viewer may not be cognizant that the potted palm to the rear right of the figure has greater significance than one finds in a typical houseplant seen in a magazine. Though its leaves are of purple and green tone, the form of the plant itself springs from a masterpiece of the 16th century by Kanō Motonobu (Japan, 1476-1559), whose talent and power positioned the Kanō school to become official painters to the shogunate for three centuries. Motonobu’s ability to take a Chinese manner of ink painting and adjust it through composition and coloration to fit the taste of the Japanese has been taken another step by Matsuyama, who places this Sino-Japanese motif within a contemporary international art context. The pot in which the palm stands is an elongated version of a known vessel by a creative hero of late-19th century Japanese ceramics, Makuzu Kōzan (Japan, 1842-1916). The realism and spatial definition of Kōzan’s painting of bamboo on his vessel makes it an emphatic point of focus at the right edge of Matsuyama’s canvas.


The indoor-outdoor aspect of the porch-like space that Matsuyama paints takes on a new meaning as birds fly in the window and land on the floor, creating apparently no impression on the woman. It seems that it would be perfectly natural to have a goose flap through one’s room. Matsuyama located these feathered wonders in paintings of the late 19th and early 20th century by Watanabe Shōtei (Seitei: Japan, 1851-1918), and Sakakibara Shikō (Japan, 1895-1969). Shōtei was among the earliest artists to study outside of Japan, visiting Paris in 1878 for the world’s exposition there, then remaining for three years to learn European painting techniques. He brought back to Tokyo a blended Japanese-Western style that would make him very popular among foreign buyers and a sought-after designer for craftspeople making objects for export. Three lively sparrows from a gilded screen by Shōtei are copied and repeated in a staccato rhythm across the upper center of Matsuyama’s painting, flowing in with the wind that lifts the draperies. In Shōtei’s painting, the sparrows were an emblem of early spring. In Matsuyama’s painting, they bring life and energy. Shikō was a painter in the neo-traditional Japanese style, who blended pre-modern ink painting techniques with drawings done directly from nature, adding his own expression through dramatic contrasts of ink tone. Those contrasts are downplayed in the pelican from his painting which in Matsuyama’s composition stands on a shiny linoleum floor, its colors enriched to make it a center of interest. Flowers in the picture come from ukiyo-e print artists such as Katsushika Hokusai (Japan, 1760-1849) and Utagawa Hiroshige (Japan, 1797-1858). Hokusai, most famous outside Japan for his print of a great wave, and Hiroshige, whose designs strongly influenced the Impressionists, both turned to flowers and landscapes as subjects following enactment of laws by the shogunal government restricting publication of pictures of entertainers in 1830.  Both artists drew directly from nature, though in some floral images would utilize Chinese painting style for this subject.

While many of his pictorial resources have a deep background enhanced by knowledge of East Asian art, Matsuyama makes the paintings approachable by inserting objects that draw on memories of his own or the general viewer. On the floor, a cassette tape of “Cali Baby!” is significant by lending the impression that the depicted room, with its brilliant patterns and lively inhabitants, is a familiar place, embellished with memories of Matsuyama’s youth in California. As music is one of the driving forces in Matsuyama’s day, he lays two rock album covers on the table, the banana designed by Andy Warhol on the cover of The Velvet Underground & Nico’s eponymous first album in 1967, and Guns-N-Roses “Welcome to the Jungle” album of 1987, from which he named the painting.


Over the entire composition of “Welcome to the Jungle”, and all paintings in the series, are white dots representing snow. Matsuyama expresses dual concepts through this single element. Often as souvenirs people will collect snow globes, their interiors showing an idealized view of the place visited. Like the magazines pages used as models for the compositions of Matsuyama’s paintings, snow globe scenes are archetypal visions of beauty, and as mementos, they gather as concrete images of places seen, like the quoted motifs in Matsuyama’s paintings. The second concept behind snow comes from the Japanese Edo period (1615-1868) standard trope for multiple pictures representing the seasons, referred to as “Snow, Moon, and Flowers”. Though traditionally the seasons are mostly separated in paintings and prints, Matsuyama combines them through flowers in the picture, the veil of snow across the painting surface, and a globe-like shape somewhere within the composition standing in for the moon. Breaking rules of Japanese painting, Matsuyama has become what one critic called, “a California roll”, the form made in Japan but the taste unrecognizable to the Japanese palette.


Having an introduction to the wealth of motifs within one painting, one can begin to understand the layered sampling of information within all works in the group. It is not isolated images that stand in relationship to one another on the painting’s surface. It is also time through the chronological aspects of those painting snippets—with artistic quotes ranging from a 16th-century Japanese painting to a 1967 rock album—place being somewhere between New York and Tokyo, and the mix of cultural conditioning and memories that serve to underpin a human personality. Matsuyama’s method for combining these images to suggest his mental impressions within a specific moment are intuitive. He works by feel, editing images in and out until the composition can convey the correct accumulation of aesthetic stimuli, somewhat in the manner of a DJ mixing tunes to produce in the listener a particular mood.


Every painting in the exhibition has samples from historical imagery that lend it depth. In “There’s No Home for You”, the red wallpaper is an ancient textile design from China, as the dress that the model wears is drawn from a later Chinese emperor’s robe. The ducks to the figure’s lower left spring from a 15th-century Japanese painting that quotes imperial Chinese style. Then, surrounding flowers and plants from various sources all represent in Japanese poetic metaphors for autumn. Bringing the composition back to earth, Matsuyama inserts a “Playboy” cover about sexy Asians, and a mid-century postcard of Washington D.C. with a caricature of Trump bellowing added to it.

On the theme of consumption in “Heroic Jam in Me”, a young man stands with his new bike which is lightly mud-spattered, wearing a shirt drawn from a Gucci scarf design, each covered with logo names changed to master modern artists. A Starbucks cup reminds us of our daily cup of java, while to the lower left Kano Motonobu (see above) painted the realistic models for rats eating apples, again rendered in a Chinese manner. An apple core is tossed to the left. Above, a captured parrot which once graced a print by Hiroshige, creates a stylish counterpoint to the young man, who is surrounded by summer and autumn flowers.


“Uh oh Together Again” draws on a wild mix of metaphors. The model’s dress comes from the costume of a demon from a Kabuki play illustrated in a print by Toyohara Kunichika (Japan, 1835-1900), foremost among late 19th-century artists specializing in scenes from theater. Patterns on the chair and floor, however, find their sources in Buddhist art, with floral scroll designs initially imported from China but used habitually in textiles and carved surfaces to represent purity and grandness. Similarly, repeating patterns of flying phoenix-like birds on blue wallpaper have their early source in Chinese metalwork, but could again be used on Japanese textiles for ritual use. Cats in the manner of the 18th-century master Nagasawa Rosetsu (Japan, 1754-1799) and 19th-century painter and lacquer artist Shibata Zeshin (Japan, 1807-1891) ignore a beautifully plated piece of salmon painted by Hokusai. Above, a macaque uses an arm of the pagoda-shaped chandelier as a branch on which to swing, the model coming from a painting of 1933 by the neo-traditional Japanese painter, Hashimoto Kansetsu (Japan, 1883-1945). Prints by Andy Warhol stare out from the wall in golden frames, while a vase of flowers visits from a religious painting by the early 19th-century painting master and samurai Sakai Hōitsu (Japan, 1761-1828). The picture’s mood is found in the mad combination of secular and religious sources.


The last of the densely packed paintings to describe here is “You Should Know Where I’m Coming From”. In this large horizontal format, Matsuyama takes inspiration from early 20th-century jungle scenes by the self-taught genius Henri Rousseau (France, 1844-1910) for his general style and densely packed forms, and from pre-modern Japanese screens of the late 17th century for his overall composition. Trees and bamboo in each of his models would form the framing devices for the layout of each screen, but Matsuyama has manipulated the spacing of these so that they do not show up near the outer edges as would be the pre-modern Japanese formula, instead creating a space cell to left of center and lower right in the picture as spaces for female figures to inhabit. A fringe of greenery completes the frame along the top edge. In gold-leafed screens, such as Matsuyama’s models, the leaf flattens out and abstracts the areas that represent ground and rolling clouds. In Matsuyama’s painting, the ground is diagonally striated as if giant shadows were cast by trees, making the position of the ground as ambiguous as if it were done with gold leaf. The birds and animals in the painting are drawn largely from prints by Ohara Koson (Shōson, 1877-1945), dating from 1910 to 1930. These prints show birds and animals recently imported from abroad and kept in zoos, as well as animals that had appeared as metaphors for seasons, times or places through centuries of Japanese art. The addition of foreign animals is a reverse of many of the references that Matsuyama makes when he inserts Asian elements into paintings that could live easily in Western collections. Other quotes come from Odano Naotake (Japan, 1750-1780), a samurai with a deep interest in Western studies, and from Hiroshige, whose bird and flower compositions are described above.  Both Hiroshige and Hokusai adopted and adapted Western-style elements in their compositions, altering them as the mood suited, and thus breaking Western painting rules. As mentioned, Matsuyama feels free to break rules of Japanese painting as an individualist, and as someone who lives without the pressures of the Japanese art world, in New York.

In “You Should Know Where I’m Coming From”, the moon at top center signals the memory of an early 16th-century pair of sun and moon folding screens, whose contents would have presented the positive and negative forces of the cosmos (Chinese: Yang and Yin). The moon, accompanied by female figures would make this a “Yin” image, though some of the plants shown have Yang energy. Many of the flowers are drawn from the naturalistic Chinese painting style of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644—sourced by Japanese Kanō school academic painters then quoted by Matsuyama—with flowers having thin or non-existent outlines and strong gradations indicating light and shade which lend them volume.

The juxtapositions of female models—one wearing Chinese-inspired semi-formal skirts and one in a casual day dress—represents generally many of the awkward comparisons in these paintings, the jolt of these contrasts pulling the viewer from the quotidian reality of the present time and place to hint at the wonder of seeing a larger world.  Matsuyama’s paintings allow us to travel through time and memory, bringing relics of veneration and objects of casual curiosity into the same plane of observation, and creating an opening for a new point-of-view.

of 1249