Art Asia Pacific: One Thousand Shades of Gray

July 1, 2015

Elaine W. Ng

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One Thousand Shades of Gray: Tomoo Gokita
By: Elaine W. Ng

Tomoo Gokita is an outsider among Tokyo art insiders. With his boyish charm, he is sociable yet reticent. He regularly declares his love for beer and professional wrestling—particularly the 1976 match between Japan’s Antonio Inoki and American champion boxer Muhammad Ali. He studies record-album covers rather than art catalogs. So when the easygoing, 46-year-old painter of abstract-figurative canvases—more appreciated in the indie music and zine subcultures than by Tokyo-based curators and gallerists—was given a retrospective in August 2014, “The Great Circus,” at the prestigious Kawamura Memorial DIC Museum of Art, an hour’s train ride southeast of Tokyo, it caught Japan’s art community by surprise. In a Japan Times review of the show, critic Taro Nettleton described Gokita as a serious artist, but also recognized that he is “all but ignored by the Japanese art world.” 

During my visit to Gokita’s studio—a small, garage-size space—at the tail end of his four-month-long retrospective, the painter gleefully recounted how he had gone back to see his show a few days earlier and that it had been teeming with young, curious Japanese visitors. “I was told by the museum director that it is a miracle for me to be showing at Kawamura as a living artist,” said Gokita. “Kids are not the usual audience at the museum,” he added, alluding to the fact that the institution is targeted more toward connoisseurs of American and Japanese modern art. 

Although not derided, Gokita is mostly shrugged off by the Japanese art establishment, primarily because of his prior work as an illustrator. But his paintings fascinate for their strange imagery and his facility with the medium. Gokita manages to fuse elements of classic Surrealism (isolated figures in vast dreamscapes) and 1980s Neo-Expressionism, along with a twist of Japanese 1970s graphic design (think Tadanori Yokoo) and a dash of Pop. The works most favored by Japanese hipsters and American collectors are those rendered in a limited palette of gouache—sometimes blue, but most often black, white and any number of grays—on canvas. They tend to focus on the human figure. Some subjects are realistically painted, such as Celebration Time (2011), which is an indistinct depiction of what appears to be a congregation of nocturnal revelers, with sinewy calves and voluptuous thighs. Others, as with recent paintings such as Mystic Revelation and Torture Garden (both 2013), are cartoonlike or so densely covered with brushstrokes that all traces of the human form are obliterated. In the Kawamura exhibition were many of his works from 2014 that display this tendency toward hyper-abstraction. In Kushiyaki Class Reunion (2014), six rotund forms make up a linear composition, while Bodyguard (2014) shows an amorphous figure, with severely cut bangs and two tiny dots for eyes—or are those nostrils?—hanging limply from a dark-gray branch. 

When asked if these stylistic references to Surrealism and abstraction are intentional, Gokita always insists they are not. In our interview last November, he explained with thoughtful concentration while sipping a cold beer, “I just improvise and, in the end, it looks like these categories, but I never intend it to.” Instead, Gokita maintains that he paints whatever comes to mind when he finds himself facing an empty canvas. Some critics have called his work post-conceptual, because it ostensibly lacks a readily appreciable concept or idea. This could explain the animus of his detractors in Tokyo, while also shedding light on his growing following, particularly in the United States.

The wily Gokita, who enjoys dodging questions about his career, tends to refer to himself as a “self-taught” artist. However, this isn’t really the case. He grew up in Chofu, a middle-class Tokyo suburb where he continues to live, now with his wife and two children, only a short walk from his childhood home and his studio. Gokita’s father was a designer for Dentsu, Japan’s largest advertising agency founded in 1901. In the 1970s, Gokita’s father worked on the Playboy account, laying out their advertising pages (Gokita also discovered recently that his father worked with the legendary Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki). As a young boy, Gokita encountered copies of the soft-core erotic magazines lying around the family living room. He described his father as open-minded, and recalled that he encouraged Gokita to look at the magazines, because, he said with an impish smile, quoting his father, “women are beautiful” (in Japan, lawfully produced magazines are prohibited from showing full frontal nudity—particularly of genitalia). Many of those same vintage erotic magazines—printed in the 1960s and ’70s—which he pronounces as “influential,” would remain in his mind and serve as source material for Gokita’s early work as an illustrator and later as a painter. When he wasn’t flipping through Playboy, young Gokita oftentimes played with clay or plastic models, but mostly he spent his childhood drawing. The only school subject that interested him was learning kanji, the Chinese characters used in traditional Japanese, because of the pleasure he derived from memorizing visual information, such as the prescribed stroke order of the complex written forms. 

Since Gokita wasn’t academically inclined, the young draftsman briefly enrolled in a local art college in 1988, which he modestly admits was not a prestigious school but rather one that admitted anyone who applied. There he experimented with oil painting, in a wide range of colors. I asked him if he still had any works he’d made at art school. Amused, he dug out two canvases from this early period. While not immediately recognizable as Gokita’s work today, these paintings do possess elements of fantasy, but are a far cry from the cool, grayscale compositions he is best known for. In the first early painting, the top half of the canvas features a bearded man, topless and fit, wearing baggy khaki trousers and white Adidas sneakers, holding a pitchfork. He stands next to a tribal mask and a painting of a skull, in an Escher-esque interior space of endless archways. The bottom half of the canvas is coated with a swath of royal blue. The painting has a tacky, baroque-style gold frame, which Gokita proclaims he chose himself. The second, smaller painting features a dark-green phantasmagorical face, which fuses into a portrait of another woman with her hand against her head. These two ghoulish faces are surrounded by swirls of green, pink and hot orange. Both works are naively rendered, and could easily grace the cover of a corny 1970s Prog Rock album (picture Frank Zappa, Mike Oldfield or Pink Floyd). 

Music turned out to be a better gateway for Gokita into fine art. After two years in art school, Gokita dropped out in 1990 and followed in his father’s footsteps as a graphic designer, first creating nightclub flyers. Noise-rock musicians from abroad, who developed strong followings in Japan in the 1990s and 2000s, would often play in Tokyo. Through friends in the music business, Gokita was able to meet some of these musicians backstage on their Japanese tours, and as a result, when invitations poured in from American experimental musicians such as Jim O’Rourke, Thurston Moore and the punk band Deerhoof, Gokita agreed to design their CD and LP covers. Soon his work began to extend to advertising campaigns for avant-garde Japanese fashion houses such as Final Home by Kosuke Tsumura and Toga Archives, along with lifestyle and culture magazines including Barfout! and the now defunct Tokion

Despite his success, Gokita quit designing for the most part and returned to drawing and painting in the mid-1990s. Although he had developed a strong reputation among the fashion and music scenes, he found meeting with clients and being asked to revise his work increasingly tedious. Gokita would occasionally work for musicians and companies such as Tokion and Toga Archives, which gave him creative freedom. He explained to me how he struggled financially during this transitional period. As a solution to some of his cash-flow issues, Gokita limited himself to two single colors, a tactic he perfected by discovering the endless variations between them. “When I was playing with black and white colors on my palette, I was surprised by how beautiful the gradations were.” It was also a natural extension of his love of drawing—the genre that gained him his initial following. 

His breakthrough into fine art circles came in 2000, when the Japanese publisher Little More released 3,000 copies of what became a cult-classic artist book, Lingerie Wrestling, which quickly sold out; today, secondhand copies sell for a few hundred dollars. The diary-size publication features 190 pages of free-form drawings—a bewildering mix in charcoal, marker and ink, featuring realist renderings of pinup girls, gorillas, gangsters, wrestlers (champions of Mexican lucha libre, a free-style wrestling form in which fighters don colorful masks, which the losing fighter must remove at the end of the match), retro computers, cars and VCRs, along with scribbles, optical patterns and text in Japanese and English—and almost all of them are gently marked with smudges from Gokita’s carbon-covered fingers, giving readers the intimate sensation of thumbing through the actual copy of the artist’s sketchbook. 

The idea of creating a bound portfolio had been far from his mind when he was doodling. But it was a good thing he published his drawings, because Lingerie Wrestling launched him into the purview of the New York art world. An early solo show Gokita had held in Japan at Parco Gallery in 2000 featured the individual pages from Lingerie Drawing. Each drawing was priced at JPY 30,000 (roughly USD 300 at the time), and none of them sold. But after artist Taylor McKimens (partner of Japanese artist Misaki Kawai, known for her psychedelic paintings and papier-mâché sculptures) stumbled upon a copy of Lingerie Drawing, at New York’s New Museum bookshop, he invited Gokita to exhibit in “Stranger Town,” a group show in 2005, curated by McKimens at Dinter Fine Art, in Chelsea. The subject of the show was American and Japanese artists recognized in other fields and disciplines—such as illustration, music or even skateboarding—whom McKimens felt deserved more attention in the art world. In Roberta Smith’s review of the exhibition in the New York Times, she praised the otherwise unknown Japanese illustrator: “One of the show’s high points is the stunning wall devoted to drawings in charcoal, ink or pencil by Tomoo Gokita . . . Mr. Gokita’s vocabulary barrels across illustration, pornography, abstraction, children’s drawing, calligraphy and sign-painting, with a perfect control, velvety surfaces and tonal range that makes black-and-white feel like living color.” 

Unlike in Japan, his drawings in “Stranger Town” nearly sold out. Before long, American dealers—such as New York’s Jeffrey Deitch, Bill Brady from Kansas City and Honor Fraser in Los Angeles—were inviting him to participate in group and solo shows at their galleries. In 2008, Taka Ishii, founder of one of the leading galleries in Tokyo, particularly known for avant-garde Japanese photography, added Gokita to his gallery roster. Ishii reflected back on his decision to invite the artist to show with the gallery, “I was attracted to Gokita’s high contrast monochromatic palette and the non-indigenous content of the paintings and drawings.” 

Gokita’s works continue to sell briskly in the US. His black-and-white portraits of women with their faces obliterated by patterns—some geometric, others in wormlike knots that look as if they were made with a squeegee—are particularly popular, along with his paintings of wrestlers, hot dogs and other retro-kitsch subjects, which appeal to collectors in both the US and Japan. Many of these paintings are based on his pencil and ink sketches. He still loves drawing, which he finds “relaxing,” as he tends to copy from found photos and old movie and wrestling magazines purchased at secondhand shops. But over time Gokita has upended his art-making process by painting freely without the aid of any preliminary drawings. 

Perhaps because of this, his recent paintings have become looser and more abstract. He told me that “painting, to me, is like sports.” Gokita reacts intuitively to the canvas, instead of methodically planning out a painting or tracing from a photograph. By 2008, when his work had moved decisively in a painterly direction, he began relying less on creating recognizable references to his beloved source material. A Boring Honeymoon (2008), created in smears of all shades of gray, depicts a topless, bikini-clad sunbather with an oversized, beehive-shaped head and a rotund body, sitting uncomfortably on a beach alongside a glass bottle and two books. In Sinister Exaggerator (2008), Gokita’s mesmerizing handling of black and white paint creates the glistening, metallic sheen of what appears to be a large intestine. Other bodily organs emerge in his blue-and-white series of paintings from 2009, such as This Misunderstanding and Sooth, with spleen- and kidney-shaped forms. Because Gokita has moved away from the specificity of visual references and avoids commenting on the meaning of his work, it is uncertain whether the resemblance of these abstract shapes to bodily parts is intentional or coincidental. 

Although the references to organs have receded from his paintings for the moment, the female figure is unlikely to ever disappear from his work, given his love for this motif. But while his recent paintings of women, such as Showgirl and A Bathing Beauty (both 2013), still allude to the campy yet seductive burlesque showgirls of a bygone era, the works are stripped of any realistic details. Instead, forms are carved out with broad swaths of white and black paint, creating fingers, hair, the coy gesture of an arm or the sensuous curve of a woman’s thigh. Although Gokita has repeatedly said in published interviews that he has no idea why he wants to draw women—in particular bunny girls—“again and again,” the female form has allowed him to cultivate his surrealistic aesthetic. Whether partially obscured or entirely abstracted, Gokita’s metamorphosing of the figure (with an emphasis on the face, much like the masks of lucha libre wrestlers) into something otherworldly denies viewers the pleasure of looking at a face and simultaneously rousing their imagination at the same time.

While the figure injects a surreal, libidinous energy, the other side of Gokita’s practice is the erasure of human forms—a tendency that has been growing in his work since 2008, although one could see signs of it beginning in Lingerie Wrestling. It was the “Great Circus” exhibition that fully revealed Gokita’s long affinity for abstraction. Included in the show was Untitled #1–30, a group of never-before-seen nonrepresentational drawings from 2003, created in India ink, pencil, ballpoint pen and crayon. These identically sized works look mechanical, yet are full of emotional tension—as if an artificial-intelligence machine was tasked with creating art. Almost completely monochrome in a deep, warm black, the drawings are covered in varying degrees of scrawls, swirls and smudges. Some in the series include text or vague hints of facial features that have been heavily covered over or crossed out, while others are dotted with rough markings of geometric forms or something verging on hieroglyphics. When asked about this unusual group of early works, Gokita explained that they were from a difficult time in his career when he was struggling with his identity—was he a designer or a painter?—and unable to do what he wanted. So he let himself loose in a frenzy of pure improvised mark-making. The untamed drawings belie the simplistic pigeonholing of Gokita as a graphic illustrator who successfully made the crossover from T-shirts and CD covers to fine art. 

Accustomed to being underestimated by those around him, Gokita is unconcerned with his position in the Japanese art scene, which still categorizes him more as a graphic artist because of the content of his work—or Gokita’s obvious disregard for it—and more specifically, because of his background in design and his popularity within local subcultural communities. He is also not the first artist to be rejected by Japan’s art world despite commercial success abroad and a loyal fan base among Japanese youth. Takashi Murakami, Makoto Aida and Yoshitomo Nara have all been, and some continue to be, largely ignored by certain factions of the Japanese domestic art scene that do not respect the practice of creating, respectively, otaku(geek/nerd), kowai kawaii (creepy cute) or kawaii(cute) art for a foreign market. However, unlike some of his contemporaries, Gokita rarely peddles the iconography of “cool Japan,” namely anime or manga-style imagery, nor does he have a factory of assistants mass-producing his work for him. Rather, he is fixated upon his own personal experience with paint and how moving it around on a canvas, with his savvy pastiche of painterly tactics, can create a never-ending range of gradients and tones, such as those in his abstract drawings from 2003. 

Actually, Gokita seems at ease about not being fully embraced by the Japanese art establishment, and explains without a hint of arrogance how it was a greater honor to be given a solo show last year by Mary Boone, the New York gallery that championed the 1980s painters Julian Schnabel, Eric Fischl and David Salle, who he had learned about as a teenager flipping through books and magazines. In fact, unlike Murakami, Aida and Nara, who cite manga and nihonga painting as references in their work, Gokita tells me it was a generation of New York Neo-Expressionists, then centered around Mary Boone Gallery, who had made the biggest impression on him during his student days at art college. Perhaps this is why his audience within Japan (the youth culture) and those abroad (the international art world) revel in his nonconformist paintings: lowbrow Western kitsch mixed with the transnational appeal of abstraction. Surely a painting of a wrestling hold, like his Half Nelson Courtship (2012), has never looked so amusing yet so beautiful at the same time.

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