BY ROLAND KELTS
[Tomoko Sugimoto photographed by Chris Mosier]
The expatriate Japanese artist Tomoko Sugimoto’s first solo show in the United States, “Whirl and Swallow,” was held in Brooklyn on March 12, 2011, one day after Japan’s earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown. Sugimoto got word of the disasters in New York, where she has lived since 1996. She didn’t think anyone would show up. The gallery owner in Williamsburg and her close friends urged her to see it through, and she did, preparing for the exhibition with one eye on the increasingly grim television footage from her native land. “At first, I was so depressed,” she said. “We already knew what was happening and could see these crazy scenes, and the numbers of dead kept rising. We were very upset. But so many people came. I think everyone came to see each other and talk to each other. And people kept saying to me, ‘I feel a little better now just viewing your work. I feel a happy energy.’ ”
That happy energy filled two small rooms and a narrow corridor last month, at Sugimoto’s first solo show in Manhattan. Cast in soft, auburn-yellow light, Sugimoto’s work—a deceptively plain combination of cotton-thread embroidery on canvas and sparsely applied acrylic paints and watercolors—looked both joyous and comforting. Some viewers (including this one) appeared perplexed at first, seeking out the conceptual and/or cultural codes embedded in much twenty-first-century art from Japan, whose most commercially successful practitioner, Takashi Murakami, dazzles with fun-house-mirror distortions of Japanese pop-cultural imagery, and whose reigning doyenne, Yayoi Kusama, pummels with polka dots.
Instead, we were confronted by figurative portraits in gentle pastels of children at play, twirling about and dangling from a gymnastics pole, as in the show’s eponymous centerpiece triptych, “Turn Around and Around, Then Around.” Or dancing through space, kicking, and diving in “Jumping Into Jello” and “Popping Onto Pudding.” Flowers, raccoons, monkeys, deer, and insects punctuated a series based on the Japanese zodiac, most of the figures somehow aloft, relishing their physical freedom.
“At first, I thought my subjects were too common,” Sugimoto told me afterward, at a SoHo restaurant. “But maybe people need that now. Just being in the moment. One lady came up to me after the reception and said, ‘Thank you so much for your art. I see a lot of shows, but this was the first time I looked at art and said, Wow, I really want that! I want that energy inside me.’ ” Sugimoto added, “When I go to some art shows, I think, Yes, that’s really dark. But I also feel I don’t need any more of that right now.”
Sugimoto’s mother is an artist and art teacher in Japan, and she grew up surrounded by catalogues of works by European Impressionists, American modernists, Japanese scroll painters, manga artists—and even Charles M. Schulz’s “Peanuts,” which her mother adored. (“We were never rich enough to be collectors, so my mother collected catalogues.”) She recalls being a child in a tatami-mat room with plain paper pinned to the walls so she could draw whatever she wanted. She attended Musashino Art University, in Tokyo, and moved to New York when she was accepted into a program for artists from Asia at the School of Visual Arts. A year after her enrollment, she encountered the well-documented “outsider artist” Henry Darger’s work at an exhibition uptown. Darger’s illustrations echoed the “crazy human figures” she loved as a child in a catalogue of the Austrian artist and architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser. She decided to become an illustrator.
But she needed a job. Winter set in, and the rising global superstar Murakami was advertising in the help-wanted listings. It was mostly for the visa, Sugimoto says now, but she took a job at Murakami’s Brooklyn studio, later called KaiKai Kiki, which helped her learn about the international art scene and Japan’s place and reputation in it. “Honestly, the visa was the most important thing at the time,” she said. “My mother was always pushing me to do my own thing. ‘Why did you take that job with Takashi?’ she asked. But now that he’s famous, she’s really happy.”
Murakami’s anime- and manga-inspired paintings and sculptures started selling for millions, and his friendships and collaborations with Louis Vuitton and Kanye West placed him at the center of an art-world spotlight. Sugimoto became Murakami’s New York–based art director as he and his cadre of fellow pop-oriented artists rapidly defined what the world perceived as contemporary Japanese art. Andy Warhol–style, Murakami even coined a handy, if reductive, term for it: “Superflat,” 2-D imagery sans aesthetic hierarchies. Sugimoto and her colleagues were responsible for executing Murakami’s ideas with the materials available to them in New York. She can’t offer an objective opinion about his body of work, she tells me, because she was too close to the act of bringing it to life. “What I learned most from him was passion, the determination to be an artist no matter what happened.”
The American art critic Megan M. Garwood, who wrote the catalogue introduction for “Turn Around,” sees Sugimoto’s work as a triumph of craft over conceptualization, from a country where craft and art remain interchangeable—the Japanese notion of monozukuri, or “making things well,” can be found in its lacquerware, food, and electronics. “This is not happening in America,” Garwood said. “In America, the type of art that is coming from the same age group is so overly conceptual. There’s no being loose with it. It’s all about ‘me.’ Japanese artists seem to be identifying with a communal perspective. They’re not getting overindulgent in the process of trying to destroy what came before them; they’re using art to say something very intimate that we all need.”
Kohei Nawa, a contemporary of Sugimoto’s whose work includes so-called “pixcellized” deer—taxidermies covered with glass baubles—recently told the Times that the new generation of Japanese artists no longer feel the need to represent Japan with self-referential imagery, pop or otherwise. But Sugimoto is proud of her Japanese ancestry, and happy to celebrate and embody it in her work. “I’m a Japanese, yes, but I live in America,” she said. “Embroidery is a European and American craft, true, but I use it in a Japanese way, with rough industrial canvas to express organic textures, like tatami, and two-dimensional portraits of classical Japanese subjects in nature. Maybe Nawa feels differently because he’s living in Japan and needs to protect his space.” She paused, then added, “I’m free from all that.”
Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the United States.” He divides his time between New York and Tokyo.