When Shirley Temple was everybody’s darling, Roger Shimomura was a toddler behind barbed wire. Although he has circled this childhood trauma for nearly a decade, only now has he given the lost world of his incarcerated youth a full measure of tragic resonance in a new series of paintings titled “Minidoka on My Mind” at the Greg Kucera Gallery.
Born in Seattle, Shimomura’s earliest memories are from the Idaho detention camp where his family lived until the end of World War II. Their crime was being west Coast Japanese Americans after Japan attacked the U.S. and started the war in the Pacific. He was 5 when his family was released, and he returned to Seattle with his parents to watch them try to rebuild their lives.
Shimomura is a cool painter who gives hot subjects a deadpan edge. Like Masami Teraoka, he combines American Pop with an updated version of ukiyo-e, the woodblock penny prints from old Edo. When ukiyo-e prints popped up in Europe as wrapping paper, they gave the 19th- century modernists who were tired of Renaissance –based western perspective somewhere to go- not distance to a vanishing point but distance in layers.
From the shared base of ukiyo-e and American Pop, Shimomura and Teraoka have continued to diverge, Shimomura specializing in hard, flat color and Teraoka leaning into fluid line and delicate tonalities.
Now in his late 60s, Shimomura’s art has a much broader emotional range than it did formerly, which gives his subject depth beyond its Pop Art base.
“American Infamy #2” (acrylic/canvas, 6 feet high/12 feet wide) has the formal economy and panoramic worldview of classic Japanese landscape screens, to which its four-part paneling alludes.
The ground is golden for daylight. Amid gray bunkers, a community tries to achieve something close to daily life. Surrounding them is barbed wire and over their heads guard towers. As clouds burrow like giant worms across the sky, a guard on the lower left is a flat black shadow holding binoculars and looking down.
In an age of surveillance and a time of war, “Minidoka on My Mind” has relevance beyond its immediate subject. If you’re walking down a city street, chances are good some camera is tracking you. And no imagination is necessary to relate to the idea of a military operation hanging over daily life like a dark cloud or team like “enemy alien” used to frighten people.
In a series of smaller paintings titled “Night Watch,” Shimomura took apart the stacked, skyscraper apartments of Chicago painter roger Brown, scattering each on the ground to remove the urban note and accentuate the oddity of the camp life.
In “Classmates,” whites at liberty to walk away stand on the free side of the fence beside to a peer behind wire. “Classmates #2” is the artist as a shadow of himself, a gray boy with a prisoner’s ID tag behind a blond version of Shirley Temple. In an “American Alien #2,” a tot behind wire drops a Japanese toy as if startled and turns to look at the viewer. In his eyes are questions: Why was I here? Who’s here now?
“Nikkei Story” is a massive three- panel survey of the three Japanese-American generations- his grandparents, parents and himself-his own moving closer to the mainstream but still shadowed by a buck-tooted yellow demon, the racist projections of the larger culture. It’s the demon who gives who gives the thumbs-up sign off the lower right. He’s still here.
Shimomura is a master of layers. In his visual tossed salad, the tragic, comic, tender, and ironic collide without collapsing into incoherence. He can paint ugly but is fully capable of beauty. In his late 60s he’s 10 times the painter he was in his youth and shows every sign of continuing his ascendancy.