Inside Japanese artist Ay-Ō’s 'Happy Rainbow Hell' at the Smithsonian Museum
by Manu SharmaMay 23, 2023
•make your fridays matter with a well-read weekend
by Manu SharmaPublished on : Oct 19, 2021
The practice of painting has seen great transformations over the centuries. Whereas it is one of, if not the oldest artistic pursuit, it has also interacted with bodies and subjectivities of faith, statecraft and warfare in order to retain a measure of primacy as creative endeavours go. However, with the shifting of the tides of time, this has changed, and the art of painting has lost some of that primacy, if not for any dearth of practitioners or engagement, then simply by virtue of other artistic pursuits proliferating throughout the digital age. The question then arises - how can such a venerable craft maintain relevance in the information age, at a time when we do not have the spread of any major religion or the occurrence of any defining war to guide it? The answer lies, as it always has, within the zeitgeist: painting today must speak to the sense of individual exploration that has rooted itself at the core of our beliefs. This coincides with the central subject of so much music and television, as well as the fulcrum for so many debates and shifts in policy-making: the individual, as both story and catalyst.
This is precisely what the painting practice of Yokohama born-and-raised Itaru Shimamura is chiefly preoccupied with. The artist tells STIR rather cryptically, “When asked what these works mean, and what exactly the message they send is, I can only really say ‘life’. This is neither a belief nor a philosophy. Nor is there any message here.” The artist continues, stating that he consciously avoids manifesting messages within his work, caring only to fill his life with art and his art with life. Shimamura’s deft strokes chase the contours of human faces and identities, yet mask and exaggerate these as well, hiding as much as they reveal in the process. The result is a strange collection of richly adorned visages, that stare blankly at viewers through eyes that appear as though they are black holes; carrying the weight of unknown knowledge within them.
Shimamura was born in 1965 and has spent most of his life living in Yokohama, Japan. He tells STIR, “I haven't officially learned about painting except in my childhood, but when I was a teenager, I learned design for two years.” He mentions that, for several years, he was far more preoccupied with music, and still draws a great deal of inspiration from it. It is apparent that the music he has explored has acted as a gateway into other cultures, and it is upon this base that Shimamura has built a visual dialogue, drawing upon various traditional motifs from all over the world in the development of his unique and eclectic creative vision. He continues, explaining that he is fascinated with local art and decorative practices from all over Africa as well as colourful avian life from South America, which he finds himself drawn to as mysterious and fascinating creatures. Shimamura’s exploration of nature’s influence on his work makes one wonder if there is a restrained primality to be located within the subjects of his paintings. Indeed, many appear as homunculi; their base essences having been magnified to near-inhuman degrees. However, the answer cannot be quite so simple, as many also adorn themselves in unmistakably human ways. Perhaps it is the binary that must be destroyed altogether in order to read these pieces with any measure of justice.
The artist mentions that he is also influenced by the bright and bombastic monsters that make up Japanese pop culture. Specifically, he dwells on the role the creatures in Japanese cartoons and serialised television shows such as Kamen Rider have played on his work. He encountered most of these as a child and has only but recently realised the enduring impact they have held on his craft. Summing up his interests and preoccupations however, he tells STIR, “I think it's best to be in a state of nothingness and to be thinking nothing when heading to work, while also making sure to recognise our influences.” This ties back to his adamant desire to steer clear of sending any specific message through his practice, and yet, each of these influences’ pokes through, revealing themselves to those that know what they are looking for.
Discussing technique, Shimamura tells STIR, “I often paint on paper with acrylic paint. In addition, I also use coloured pencils and coloured pens. I like to start drawing innocently, but later on, I will fill in details, and add layers to many works in moments of inspiration as they strike me.” The artist explains that it is not uncommon for him to work on several pieces at once, and that he also cherishes the time he makes for rest and relaxation. Balance and emotional stability, perhaps one may even venture, a certain sense of stoicism, permeates his pieces and it is interesting to compare it to his life, and identify that the artist is not unlike his art.
Shimamura treats his subjects as blank canvases through which to seek out the essence of life and human experience. He tells STIR, “I draw portraits that carry the emotions of the lives I depict. There is no particular pose, no flashy expression, and the portraits just stand up on their own to receive positive vitality, hope and freedom. It's been this way for me for a long time now, and I don't know what influenced me to begin initially. As a matter of fact, I often find myself unable to understand the mysteries and doubts seen by others.” Shimamura’s work is meant to be engaged with along with the artist and not, as the case often becomes with overly themed pieces, despite him. It is disarming to find such simplicity in modern creative practices, and yet, there is an unmistakable weight to his work. The painter’s subjects gaze back at the viewer, as if to beckon one to move ever closer to eyes that hold stories and secrets aplenty, yet will share neither. While we gaze at his art, Shimamura himself looks into the distance, wondering where his work will go in the future.
Origin, origin, reason, I remain unknown.
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