Roger Shimomura: “Minidoka On My Mind” at Greg Kucera Gallery
Roger Shimomura’s series of paintings on the Japanese-American internment camps of World War II, “Minidoka on My Mind,” won’t open in New York until May, at the Flomenhaft Gallery, but Greg Kucera Gallery debuted the series in Seattle late last year. The 30 paintings and related prints are, in a way, the Asian-American version of Jacob Lawrence’s Migration series; they chronicle a powerful and painful event among an innocent, put-upon ethnic group. Shimomura, however, overlays his array of specific images of camp life with dozens of references to Japanese and Chinese art, scroll and screen paintings, and woodcut prints, not to mention anime comics, 1940s American film noirs, westerns, and movie musicals.
Echoing the Asian print tradition of making figures prominent by placing them in the foreground, Shimomura sets huge black silhouettes of U.S. Army camp surveillance guards at the center and sides of several paintings. These are joined by increasingly simplified, starkly flat backgrounds with single or multiple figures involved in various aspects of camp life (American Alien series, 2006). In Classmates #2 (2007), Shirley Temple stands in front of the barbed wire, while little Roger in a uniform, with a degrading serial number on a tag, hovers in the darkness behind the fence. Minidoka on My Mind (2007) is also the title of a painting of a small boy, the artist at the easel, painting the black wall of confinement before him.
Shimomura’s ability to condense complex narratives into fewer elements has increased enormously since Nikkei Story Triptych (2005). Indisputably a masterpiece, with a celebratory, all-inclusive spirit, that work portrays three generations of Japanese-in-America in crowded, shallow relief. In these new works, the selection of telling elements and symbols is comparatively reductive. Everything in each new painting has a meaning that may be read on a nearly allegorical level. Instead of being over-tasked by the challenge of the triptych’s family history, the 69-year-old artist creates images of camp life that are simultaneously autobiographical and universal. Drawing non-Japanese-American viewers into the artist’s worldview, these works make the viewer identify with the internees, and in doing so, they appeal to our deeper humanity.