Tomokazu Matsuyama: A Sculpted Portrait

Hiroki Yamamoto, Tomokazu Matsuyama In And Out, May 1, 2021



The job of an art historian is similar to that of a sculptor, or so it seems to me at times. Not a painter, but a sculptor. A painter layers paint on a rectangular white canvas––I hasten to add that the surface may not be white (see Sergej Jensen), it may not be rectangular (Masato Kobayashi), it may not be canvas (Kentaro Kobuke), and the material may not be paint (Chris Ofili), but basically painters use an additive process to create a tableau. Exceptions such as Lucio Fontana, who made cuts in the canvas to create paintings, are vanishingly rare.


By contrast, a traditional sculptor’s process is one of subtraction, removing whatever is excessive from the given material, whether wood, stone, or metal, and drawing gradually closer to the completed form that the artist imagines. This is why Mono-ha (the “School of Things”), whose members left their materials almost unmodified, was perceived as such a seminal movement.


I’ve digressed a bit, but (in my view) the work of an art historian is similar to that of a sculptor. Art history is a narrative woven from individual artists and movements, in other words a story. Naturally, it is impossible to portray the entirety of any one artist or movement, so art historians strip away (what we consider to be) the excess. Central to this subjective, selective process are the angles from which we want to shed light on artists and movements.


Needless to say, empirical research-based evidence is essential to formation of any art-historical narrative, or it will be unconvincing. But no matter how objective one tries to be, subjectivity cannot be fully eliminated. And no matter how multifaceted an image one tries to present, there are always limitations and oversights, so it is important for multiple commentators to portray any given subject from multi-layered perspectives. For these reasons, art-historical discourse can be regarded as analogous to works of art.


Speaking of trying to portray a subject, Tomokazu Matsuyama is an extremely elusive artist. Matsuyama, who has appeared in documentaries, is an artist, an entrepreneur, and at times appears to be an athlete (one TV program showed him on a morning run, part of his daily routine). He appears to have many different faces, and at the same time these seem to be the same face, viewed from different angles. I asked Matsuyama about this, and he replied that all of his activities converged on one very simple objective, “to create good art.” He says that the morning run is a routine that pumps large amounts of oxygen into the brain, and that running each morning overwhelmingly boosts his performance during the day.


I should note that contemporary art is my area of specialization, such as it is, and I lack the qualifications or ability to comment on Matsuyama’s skills as a business manager or analyze his performance as a runner. Therefore this essay focuses on Matsuyama’s works of art, focusing on his paintings and sculptures and placing them in an art-historical context. As an art historian, I will endeavor to sculpt a portrait of Tomokazu Matsuyama as an artist, carving it out with the following three conceptual tools: “Simulationism,” “street art,” and “postcolonial aesthetics.”





Interspersed in Matsuyama’s works, whether two- or three-dimensional, are a wide variety of design motifs both historical and contemporary, Eastern and Western. He was born in 1976 and moved to the United States alone at the age of 25. During elementary school, he spent several years on the West Coast of the US. We see here a personal history in which different cultural backgrounds, Japanese and American, have intermingled. In his work he cites freely from titans of both Eastern and Western art history (Hokusai, Picasso, Pollock), and he speaks of this in interviews without hesitation.


In Matsuyama’s paintings, somber traditional colors of ancient Japan and vibrant fluorescent shades common in the West are used together. There is a mixture of historical elements, from classical paintings or antique patterns, and contemporary elements from such sources as magazine pinups and Internet advertisements. For example, Wanderlust Innocence (Fig. 1), on an irregularly shaped canvas, juxtaposes an image drawn from a present-day interior décor magazine purchased in New York with a motif of geese often appearing in classical Chinese painting.


Images drawn from East and the West are jumbled together in his sculptures as well. Among them is This Is What It Feels Like (Fig. 2), a modern female figure quoted from a cutting-edge fashion magazine. The pose (which will be replaced with others when next month’s issue comes out!), drawn from a source that represents consumerist society, seems to overlap with the static poses of Buddhist sculpture that have been passed down through the ages. In the details, we see birds perched on her shoulders and feet and ribbons trailing from her hands, imagery derived from well-known works of East Asian sculpture.


Artistic mixtures like these further highlight the heterogeneity and ambiguity of contemporary culture. In Matsuyama’s own words, he “creates mashup-like paintings by quoting from many sources and consolidating them into single pictures, each of which reflects our current, information-saturated era.”1 While this approach earns praise for its light and contemporary feel, it may also be criticized for indiscriminate use and abuse of the cultural products of the past.


However, an argument that scoffs at such concerns appeared as early as 1991, exactly 30 years ago. Near the beginning of this text, it declares: “There is nothing to be afraid of. Go ahead and ‘steal.’ The whole world is spinning around like a record for you to freely sample, cut up, and remix without end.”2 How radical! The text is Simulationism, the author is the art critic Noi Sawaragi. The techniques of sampling, cut-up and remixing cited in the text are all forms of artistic “thievery.”


“Even if we produce nothing new, the past is overflowing with more styles than we can ever hope to consume. We must take from history what is still valid and put it to use. Why not dig things up, dust them off, cut off and discard what has rotted, and use what is still useful, like recycling? Hopefully, this can both reveal previously unknown applications and previously unrecognized flaws of these styles.”3 Simulationism was an artistic movement led (incited?) by artists with the same sort of mentality, which rose to global prominence in the 1980s.


The term Simulationism is often used more or less interchangeably with “appropriation art.” The art critic Midori Matsui defines “appropriation” as “the practice of borrowing imagery from existing cultural products, such as art history, advertising, or television, or re-photographing or repainting another person’s work as one’s own.”4 Behind this tendency lies the development of advanced consumerist society underpinned by the capitalist ethos, and in this context the blurring of boundaries between original and copy has progressed at an accelerating rate. The term “Simulationism” gained currency in the mid-1980s, and according to Matsui, this was accompanied by “expansion of appropriative media beyond photography, to sculpture and painting as well.”5


Sawaragi and Matsui point to Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman and Sherrie Levine as key practitioners of Simulationism. Another artist mentioned by Sawaragi as a particularly radical example is Mike Bidlo, who churned out works mimicking those of Picasso and Warhol. The wave of appropriation struck Japanese shores around the same time, and in Simulationism, Sawaragi analyzes the works of Yasumasa Morimura, Miran Fukuda, Takashi Murakami and other artists who burst on the scene in the mid-1980s and 1990s as Japan’s most prominent Simulationists.


As mentioned earlier, Matsuyama assembles diverse motifs in the manner of bricolage (“bricolage” is a creative work, which requires ingenuity, to forge what we have not seen by utilizing various available materials – anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss found it in the “savage mind”), through which he creates paintings and sculptures that recombine these materials as if realigning constellations in a canvas. These redrawn sky-maps brilliantly reflect the intricately entangled landscape of present-day society. By juxtaposing a wide range of subject matter, he produces heterogenous hybrids that depict the realities of an ever more complex world in the throes of globalization. Thus Matsuyama can be positioned in the lineage of Simulationism and appropriation art.


At the same time, Simulationism was strongly influenced by Western theorists such as Baudrillard. It basically emerged and developed in Europe and the US, and the appropriated images have mainly been Western ones. Meanwhile, Matsuyama frequently draws on East Asian sources, as in his series of abstract paintings with the theme of “1,000 cranes,” which in traditional Japanese culture represents wishes for long life or happiness, often in the form of origami. Keep Fishin’ For Twilight (Fig. 3), one of the paintings in this series, deftly appropriates familiar tropes of East Asian art, such as wishes and auspicious omens. Being “irrational,” such elements often excluded from the framework of Western modern art, but they are among the source materials that Matsuyama (indiscriminately) draws upon.


He consistently challenges art concepts originating in the West. Of course Simulationism, and indeed the entirety of contemporary art, is a product of the Euro-American cultural sphere. In that sense Matsuyama’s work does not fit neatly into the framework of Simulationism and appropriation art, and when simply contextualized in this way, it remains somewhat elusive.



Street Art


As a university student, Matsuyama was a dedicated snowboarder and apparently had enough talent to go professional, but was forced to give up this dream due to an injury. He had lived on the US West Coast due to his father’s work in his elementary school years, “an era when the West Coast cultures of surfing and skateboarding were in their heyday.”1 From this background, we can imagine that Matsuyama grew up surrounded by street culture.


When discussing his time studying design in New York and taking his first full-fledged steps as an artist, he often mentions Keith Haring, the iconic wunderkind who emerged from the city streets. In the early 1980s, Haring gained fame with his “subway drawings” in chalk on disused advertising panels in New York subway stations.


In recent years street art has received considerable attention in Japan as well, gaining significant impetus from the anonymous guerrilla artist Banksy, who creates stenciled graffiti works in public spaces worldwide. He has been featured in numerous media, and “has become a pop icon of our era. Even people who don’t know contemporary art have heard his name, just as even people ignorant of rock music have heard of the Beatles.”6 In 2017 Banksy opened “The Walled-Off Hotel” near the Israeli-Palestinian West Bank barrier wall, and such pointed sociopolitical critiques are another reason so many commentators are closely attuned to his activities.


In 2019, Matsuyama was selected as one of a rotating roster of artists for the Bowery Mural in New York. With past contributors including Haring and Banksy, this project is one of the prestigious stages for street artists around the world. He was commissioned to create a huge wall painting at the site, and on an episode of the popular Japanese documentary TV program Jonetsu Tairiku broadcast on October 20, 2019, Matsuyama was shown at work on the painting while struggling with unforeseen complications. Emerging from his studio onto the street, he looked like as lively as a fish that has found its way to water.



For this artist, the street may be a suitable habitat.


In the Bowery Mural painting, his skill – appropriating a wide variety of designs and images, old and new, East Asian and Euro-American – was on full display. He also used street-culture techniques and tools such as spray painting, in what could be called a fusion or cross-pollination of Simulationism and street art. Matsuyama also made liberal use of approaches considered “taboo” in the world of street art, including human wave tactics, i.e. mobilizing a large crew of helpers to work on the piece. The work’s visual grammar is that of contemporary (fine) art, and it can be said to reimport contemporary art into the realm of street art in a reversal of the street-to-gallery phenomenon. Here Matsuyama’s unique character, reflecting a unique background, is fully on view.


Matsuyama’s biggest takeaway from his street art experience is a DIY (Do It Yourself) mentality. The sociologist Yoshitaka Mori points to “the urge to rethink a range of social issues as problems that apply directly to oneself”7 as lying at the root of the DIY spirit. This same spirit is reflected in Matsuyama’s career thus far, in which he has always created his own systems while exploring solutions to problems that continually arise.


Propelled in part by the global Banksy fever, Japanese street art is gaining momentum. In recent years, an increasing number of street artists have also been active in the contemporary art field. Formed in 2012, SIDE CORE is a unit consisting of Sakie Takasu and Toru Matsushita that aims to expand expression in urban spaces and integrate art and the street. MES is a team of artists, launched in 2015 and led by Kanae Tanigawa and Ken Arai, known for their laser light shows that introduce elements of club culture into contemporary art with laser projections onto architectural structures.


It should be said that the activities of Matsuyama, who grew up around American street art, should be viewed through a somewhat different lens than representatives of contemporary Japanese street art such as SIDE CORE and MES. The latter seem to have deliberately selected the street as their main field of action, and now move back and forth between that venue and museums and galleries. On the other hand, Matsuyama began his career as a contemporary art “outsider,” and in some ways the street was his only entryway to the art world. The street art he absorbed in those days was art made for survival, rooted in a harsh and merciless environment far removed from the high-society glamor we generally associate with art.


Thus far there has been virtually no discourse that examines Matsuyama’s work in the context of street art, including the contrast described above. However, as we have seen, he has been strongly influenced by both Japanese and American street culture. Viewing his artistic practice from a street-centric perspective could lead to new and unexpected discoveries.



Postcolonial Aesthetics


The above perspectives of Simulationism and street art are clearly indispensable when discussing Matsuyama, but in this essay I will try to present another, perhaps less obvious vantage point, that of “postcolonial aesthetics.” Postcolonialism is “an academic discipline that aims to create a more fair and equitable future by critically examining the impact of past colonialism on the present.”8


Matsuyama arrived in New York on his own. He has described equal opportunity for all as the bright side of America, but also frankly discusses the discrimination and prejudice he has experienced in the land of the free – as a Japanese, an Asian, a person of color – due to which he has faced traumatic experiences over the years. The postcolonial theorist Bill Ashcroft has noted, critically, “Postcolonial theory has warily avoided the theory of aesthetics, perhaps for fear that it might contaminate the political integrity of [the] field.”9


Let us return to the “1,000 cranes” series, which has a back story that speaks to postcolonial aesthetics. Matsuyama selected (ostensibly) East Asian themes for this series, such as wishes and auspicious omens, for a reason. Perceiving the existing world of abstract painting as dominated by Eurocentrism, he deliberately incorporated elements of Japanese culture often deemed “irrational” in the West into his own abstract work. By doing so he plotted the overthrow, or more accurately the implosion, of this Eurocentric hierarchy. In this we can glimpse Matsuyama’s marvelously rebellious spirit, not often manifested in a conspicuous form.


Ashcroft asserts that postcolonial aesthetics offers access to emotions and sensations, and helps us to recognize the transculturality of the world we live in. While living in New York for many years, Matsuyama has experienced the heterogeneity of modern culture, but sometimes in ways that left a bitter taste. In reloading his work with postcolonial aesthetics, he enables viewers to grasp such ambiguities of contemporary culture directly through the senses.



In Closing


Of course, there is significant overlap among the three concepts discussed here. The appropriation tactics of Simulationism have also been used in street art, in tandem with political conflicts in communities. The reverse is also true: many Simulationist artists have been influenced by culture originating in the streets. Also, postcolonial aesthetics tends to face exclusion (or hostility) from the existing art system, making it an easy fit for street spaces outside of established museums and galleries.


As we have seen, Matsuyama’s work contains elements characteristic of Simulationism, street art, and postcolonial aesthetics. Therefore, the tentative conclusions of this essay are: in terms of artistic lineage, Tomokazu Matsuyama’s practice can be positioned on a nexus of Simulationism (appropriation art) and street art. Also, another noteworthy feature is the constant influx of postcolonial aesthetics into this intersection. This influx is unobtrusive, but rooted in Matsuyama’s determined vision. This strong determination seems to be underpinned by his actual experiences over more than a quarter century as an Asian and a Japanese resident of the United States.


As described earlier, Matsuyama has in many ways devised new systems with a DIY approach. We should not overlook the degree to which this approach has been driven by need. In other words, to somehow survive in a harsh and unforgiving global art world, he has “been forced to create a system of [his] own.” The massive sizes of many of Matsuyama’s works are a product of his experiences with street art, and are similarly the result of addressing a need. The Mingei (“folk art”) movement led by Soetsu Yanagi in Taisho Era (1912-1926) Japan advocated the “beauty of utility” (beauty in objects that meet the demands of everyday life), and something like this contributes to the extraordinary radiance that emanates from Matsuyama’s art.


Those are the main, if not definitive, observations of this essay, but as we have seen, the artist possesses an enormous range and cannot be neatly slotted into such a conceptual framework. The role of the outsider, always challenging from beyond institutional walls without being confined by established concepts of “fine art,” is also part of Matsuyama’s identity and one that fits him well.


He has shown extensively outside Japan, and each time his works have been published in exhibition catalogues, but this is the first time a full-scale collection of his work has been published in a Japanese (albeit bilingual) edition. One hopes that this will lead to more multi-layered perspectives on Matsuyama’s art and practice. These may well include views diametrically opposed to those presented in this article, and this possibility is in itself clear evidence of the inexhaustible potential of the “material” presented by the elusive artist Tomokazu Matsuyama.





1. “Tomokazu Matsuyama, Singular New York-Acclaimed Talent, Talks About His Artistic Mission,” Numéro TOKYO, online edition, Fusosha Publishing Inc., 2019.

2. Noi Sawaragi, Simulationism (Enlarged Edition),Chikuma Shobo, 2001, p.116.

3. Ibid., pp.19–20.

4. Midori Matsui, Art in a New World, Asahi Press, 2002, p.53.

5. Ibid., p.70.

6. Yoshitaka Mori, Banksy: Art Terrorist, Kobunsha, 2019, pp.11–12.

7. Yoshitaka Mori, Starting with DIY: There Are Things Money Can’t Buy!, Space Shower Networks Inc., 2008, p.204.

8. Hiroki Yamamoto, Contemporary Art History: The West, Japan, Transnational,Chuokoron-sha, 2019, viii.

9. Bill Ashcroft, “Toward a Postcolonial Aesthetics,” Journal of Postcolonial Writing, 2015, p. 410.





Fig. 1

Wanderlust Innocence, 2019

Acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 262 x 185cm


Fig. 2

This is What It Feels Like, 2018

FPR, wood, polyurethane and acrylic

Body: 78.7 x 119.3 x 83.8 cm / Base: 34.9 x 64.8 x 57.2 cm


Fig. 3

Keep Fishin’ For Twilight, 2017

Acrylic and mixed media on canvas

Artwork: 457.5 x 213.5 x 3.8 cm (three panels, 152.5 x 213.5 x 3.8 cm each)


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