Viewing “Minidoka on My Mind”: is like walking through a graphic novel on the Japanese American experience. Currently showing at Greg Kucera Gallery in pioneer Square, Roger Shimomura’s most series of paintings culminates 30 years reflection on the World War II internment from Shimomura’s own childhood memories and his grandmother’s writings.
Two large works face off across the first room of the gallery, setting the context for the exhibit. “Nikkei Story” is the triptych of densely layered, culturally symbolic images drawing a range of sources that has influenced much of Shimomura’s past work: comic books, ukiyo-e prints, propaganda posters and commercial advertisements. The three panels tell the stories of Issei, Nisei and Sansei (first, second, and third generation Japanese Americans), each composition centered on the iconic rice cooker. On the opposite wall, “American Infamy #2” is a four-panel landscape of the Minidoka internment camp as seen from one of its guard towers. Composed in an aerial perspective and the hard edged graphic style that is a Shimomura hallmark, the brightly colored figures of the inmates and the yellow dessert contrast sharply with the tar paper-covered barracks framed by dark flat-like clouds, and the black silhouette of a guard surveying the camp through binoculars.
The internment was the defining event in the Japanese American struggle for acceptance as Americans. Shimomura has spent his career examining and challenging the stereotypes and symbols of that struggle. He frequently juxtaposes imagery from different styles and periods of Japanese and American art to create works of sly wit, sarcasm, and fantasy. In contrast, his Minidoka paintings depict scenes of camp life in a more realistic and narrative manner: standing in line at the latrine, teens at a dance, vignettes of domestic life framed in the windows of barracks. The “American Alien” a young boy, a metaphor for Shimomura himself, plays among the stark barracks. The “Enemy Alien” painting injects some fantasy” an adult Shimomura the man watches the child through the lens of time and the barracks window.
“Minidoka on My Mind” is the fourth series of paintings Shimomura has based on his internment experience. His grandmother died in 1968 leaving over 50 years of diaries and notebooks in Japanese, chronicling her life in the United States. Shimomura had them translated into English and in the late 1970’s began a series of paintings drawing on material from the diaries. A child of two when he entered Minidoka, he used his grandmother’s writings to jar his own memory and provide inspiration. The first series, “Diary” (1980-83) was based directly on his grandmother’s words. The latest series is more like a distillation of their blended memories.
“Having dealt with this for so long now, going all the way back to the ‘70s I see this as a kind of emptying out of my mind of this subject,” says Shimomura. Explaining his straightforward stylistic approach to this series, “I think when you start to get close to the bottom there’s sort of a reductive process that’s reflected in that. You could say more by saying less.” He also acknowledges the possibility of some imaginative license.
“When you repeat certain memories so many times, they become clearer. To be truthful, I don’t know how far those memories have been defined and redefined beyond the reality of it.”
The painting “Minidoka on My Mind” portrays a young boy standing outside a barracks, carefully reproducing its tar paper and slats with paint brush and canvas. Shimomura does not recall as a child in camp. By projecting his identity as an artist onto this scene, he has created the same juxtaposition of time and symbols in the simple poignant image, as in his more visually complex works. Shimomura hints that this may be his last word on the interment.
“I don’t think you’ll get much more straightforward than these paintings. The next series, at least from a conceptual standpoint will be a little bit more ambiguous… It’s going to be a series of paintings, as a see it right now, of me wrestling other people and these people are all going to represent certain things that I feel like I have had to fight in my life, symbolically, metaphorically, literally. It’s going to be up to the audience to decide what their take is on it.”