The Brooklyn-based Japanese artist Tomokazu Matsuyama enjoys including a bit of spectacle to his gallery shows.
Two years ago, he produced a near life-size sculpture of a bucking horse, painted shimmering silver, ridden by an equally proportioned Playmobil figure. A couple of years before that he made a 10-foot tall toy chicken out of CNC-milled sheets of Corian.
For his latest exhibition, “East Weets Mest,” which explores identity, Matsuyama built a “contemporary temple” Joshua Liner Gallery in New York.
At the center of space, he placed a sculpture -- titled “Money Talks” -- of a gaunt Buddhist monk standing in front of a recumbent Yeso deer, a symbol of salvation in Japan.
The animal is indigenous to Hokkaido, Japan, where Matsuyama’s specimen was sourced and stuffed. Shipping it to New York proved to be more complex that the artist had imagined.
“The taxidermist one day called to say, ‘Did you clear all the customs?’” recalled Matsuyama recently at the gallery.
Matsuyama hadn’t cleared customs. In fact, he learned (after a few phone calls) that he would have to register for an import-export license and assemble a litany of paperwork. The process took a few months, but he was eventually able to pick up the animal from John F. Kennedy Airport.
“If I go broke, I think I can just sell animals,” he joked.
East Weets Mest
The walls of the gallery were hung with several canvases that bore Matsuyama’s signature style of layering a variety of hyper-kinetic colors and textures on top of each other to create abstract dreamlike scenes.
“It was more of wanting more and more and trying still to order the chaos,” he said. “And that was the lesson for this show. I think the next [show] is trying to match the balance. This one was addition through multiplication. You saw more colors than ever before. For that reason production time was insanely massive.”
In terms of subject matter, Matsuyama mines Japanese art history. He collects old Japanese art books and woodblock prints. He appropriates images he comes across -- though his style is uniquely his own -- and modifies them to comment on the modern world.
He explained that the central figure in “Money Talks,” is a copy of a thousand-year-old sculpture of the monk Basu Sennin. “Typically for a Buddha, it’s more well-figured, not human-like,” he said. “It’s a national treasure.”
For his piece, Matsuyama replaced the sutra that the Basu Sennin traditionally holds in his hand with a piggy bank. At the figure’s feet is a collection of bright colored coins. The monk’s clothes were painted a flashy automotive paint known for its ability to change color depending on the viewing angle.
“A lot of the work in this exhibition relates to desire. What is the function of art in our times?” Matsuyama said.
“Is art saving people or buying selling collecting all that money game behind it is making the salvation for the people?” he went on.
“Being an artist full-time, there’s always a factor of selling. Is art made for the sake of art or as a sold product?”
Matsuyama was born in Kyoto, Japan, and lived for a bit in Tokyo. He spent part of his childhood in Torrance, California, where he learned to skateboard and speak fluent English. He moved to New York in 2002 and designed snowboards (he had been a professional snowboarder in Japan). He worked on his own fine art when he could and showed steadily in New York and Tokyo before becoming a full-time artist a few years ago.
His work tends to explore the Japanese and American sides of his identity. He often says he doesn’t feel like he’s one or the other.
After walking around “Money Talks,” Matsuyama arrived at two large circular canvases (“Mr. Alpha” and “Mrs. Omega”) depicting colorful animals, which he explained were dogs.
“If you go to any Asian temple, there are guardian dogs at the entrance,” he said. “And one guardian dog typically has a ball, which spirits away the evil.”
He further explained the Zen symbolism of the dogs’ mouths. One is open, the other closed. They represent the first and last letters of the Japanese alphabet (and birth and death), he said, which is why he named the pieces after the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet.
“It’s fucking heavy meaning for just a dog,” he said.
“But in the West, when you think of dogs, you think of William Wegman” or George Rodrigue’s Blue Dog series, he noted.
“In the West, dogs are painted cute.”
For more from Richard S. Chang, follow him on Twitter: @r_s_c