GENERATION GAP #1: Tomokazu Matsuyama’s Quiet Compass for a Noisy Revolution

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One unintended consequence of David Ross’s appearance on the Colbert Report last year has been the misunderstanding of intention. Perhaps it’s a consequence of editing, but effects are effects. A few weeks after inauguration, the former Whitney and SFMOMA director stopped by America’s favorite fake show to discuss the Shepard Fairey Obama-poster controversy (who “owns” a photograph, where’s the line between art and propaganda), stating that “works of art are essentially a function of intention. If you intend to make a work of art…it may not be very good, but your intention trumps everything.”

In a legal context, intention is obviously important. I’m afraid, though, that Ross was speaking about the creative (and sometimes revelatory) process, which, even when working toward total self-referentiality, is always partly a process of reception, while the “general public,” insomuch as there is one, is a consumer society, increasingly interested in products above production. We don’t want to work too hard. We will do almost anything to promote myths of easy emergence: Calvin Klein creates solely in his dreams, the Internet is anonymous, Ginsberg never revised. What Ross didn’t mention was that objects, icons, brands and viral images also demonstrate intention, often in the same way that drugs or vegetables or fruits make you crave more (or less) of them; they worm into our skin, and as a generation we are left with either death or scars. It’s a choice, if limited. Our relationship with these things is defining a new generation of artists.

If it didn’t turn so quickly to steam, one of the most common questions people ask artist Tomokazu Matsuyama would also be the most annoying: “Yes,” viewers say, drool dribbling from the corners of their eyes. “It’s even kinda stunning. But is it a painting?” Matsuyama, known as Matzu or Matsu, doesn’t let such quibbles get to him. He seems to trust that people will eventually become interested in why they cannot look away from his paintings, sculptures and occasional commercial work, and that this will trump their obsession with commercial or responsibility-less views of intention.

Speaking softly in his modest Greenpoint, Brooklyn studio on the eve of “In Case You’re Lost” at San Francisco’s Frey Norris Gallery, his first West Coast solo show, Matsu laughs about always being grouped with Takashi Murakami, probably the best known contemporary Japanese pop artist. “I am an active artist in New York,” he says. “I just happen to be a Japanese artist.” He notes that he’s friends with many of the Kaikai Kiki artists (Mr., Chiho Aoshima), and has shown with many of them. These artists, he says, are similar in outlook, though they are “coming from the East” while he is “looking from the West.”

“I was born in a very old, traditional part of Japan. Then, at the age of eight, I moved to L.A.,” says Matsu. Three years later, his family moved to Tokyo. “Coming from the ‘Samurai region’ of Japan,” he says, “I was very shocked.” At first the shock came from the popular surge in what he calls “young cultures” in L.A.–surfing, skateboarding, and their related visual languages–and then from the rapid urban environment in Tokyo. Eventually he moved to New York for grad school, where, as a burgeoning street artist and pop-assimilator he felt a natural affinity with many of the artists originally shepherded by Henry Geldzahler: Lichtenstein, Hockney, Basquiat, Warhol.

“There was always this identity crisis in my life. Where we now live is a hybrid, it’s extremely diverse. How do you define being Caucasian in the U.S. today? How do you define being Asian?” asks Matsu. After entering Pratt as a design student, he learned to paint and began to scoop from American and Japanese folklore and pop iconography, entering what Andy Warhol Museum curator Eric Shiner, in his catalogue essay for Matsu’s current show, calls a “global visual exchange.” This constant sense of exchange is a hallmark of Matsu’s generation–our generation–call it the generation of those who have a strong opinion about Nirvana, one way or the other.

As a result, Matsu’s work is deceptively slick. The two cornerstones of “In Case You’re Lost” vibrate with minimalism and density: the “life-size,” 15-foot wide triptych Runnin Further Deeper (2009) explores a landscape tied mainly to the subconscious, while and the Playmobil-meets-Remington cowboy pose of Wherever I Am (2009) is both unsettling and calming. What is taming whom?

Matsu notes that Runnin Further Deeper is a part of an ongoing series of large trans-cultural/mythical landscape paintings inspired by the work of ancient scroll painter Kano Sanraku. “The icon of the horse represents male power, and the horse itself has come to be a main cultural identifier for me,” he says. There is a sense that the universe is acting macho while everything in it is try to take care of it. “It’s not a landscape painting, it’s not an abstract painting. My goal is to portray our time with a generational feel,” he says. “To portray the generation I belong to.”

This is the generation gap of Tomokazu Matsuyama: In an age where we’re even more distracted by the byproducts of distraction than by distraction itself, we’re expected to be our own Boswell. We’re even expected to be our own Remington, recalling his intentionally iconic Western illustrations with Theodore Roosevelt. We’re expected to talk to ourselves. Even if you stop worrying about being lost, even if you stop thinking that it’s so important to be lost all the time, you are still bound to be defined by a generation that for the first time is defined by what it doesn’t do. Generations of artists are increasingly defined by an obsession with the branding of things that they grew up with but that were not yet branded. Suddenly the things you held so close–the music, the snowboards, the parties, the secrets–are in the magazines, hovering amid a VH1 onslaught, just beyond memory.

When I ask for more details about historical influences, Matsu lights up. “Here are my historical references!” he says, pulling out a binder of old but only slightly faded Japanese woodblock prints.” Oddly, the plaid and polka dots that people find “urban” and “contemporary” in his work are all here, colors slightly faded but patterns vivid. Matsu’s intention isn’t “cultural” per se; instead, it’s visual and amorphous. “Now I’m a collector,” he says. “In Japan, it’s so sad. Nobody buys this stuff.” He opens to a print of a warrior on a dragon-horse-beast-thing. We gaze. “This is from 1878 and you can buy it for $150.”

Matsu continues to do commercial design work, but only when he is able to view it as a way to reach people with his art. He has had fun designing sandals for Nike and snowboards for Burton. But when a major international fashion brand asked him to design their new logo, Matsu had to refuse: “I don’t do branding. That’s not what I do,” he says. Then, after a slight pause: “My brand is me.”


Rumpus contributing editor Ari Messer was a frequent contributor to the San Francisco Bay Guardian from 2006-2010. Here is his web life. More from this author →