The Real Deal: Roger Shimomura’s American Knockoff

A knockoff usually refers to a copy of a more expensive original, bringing to mind tables of faux designer handbags and leather jackets on street corners. When painter Roger Shimomura creates a knockoff, his is a human version—specifically, a person, or a punch to the face, literally knocking you off. The artist mashes up imagery from American pop icons, Kabuki actors, Korean and Japanese manga characters, Hello Kitty, Lichtenstein-style faces and Chinese propaganda, into in-your-face, self-portrait battles between himself and the stereotypes that portray Asian American people as less valuable citizens, or “American knockoffs,” the title of his new show. These works from 2009-2012 on view at Greg Kucera Gallery in Seattle, WA, continue the battles Shimomura has fought for over four decades, a testament to the persistence of both the artist’s pursuit and the forces he is up against. - Erin Langner, Seattle Contributor

Roger Shimomura | American vs. Japs, 2009, Acrylic on canvas, 54 x 54 in. Image courtesy of Greg Kucera Gallery.

Roger Shimomura | American Beats American, 2012, Acrylic on canvas, 54 x 54 in. Image courtesy of Greg Kucera Gallery.

Shimomura’s vivid cartoon figures are insistent. While smaller in scale than the artist’s Yellow Terror exhibition at Seattle’s Wing Luke Museum in 2009, the continued brash imagery within his vast body of work evident in American Knockoff re-emphasizes the earlier exhibition’s subscript, “Always a foreigner.” Mobs of offensively costumed trick-or-treaters and angry Popeye characters overwhelm the canvases in stale, vintage tones that invade the present with imagery that is only seemingly out of sight and mind.   While many of the Japanese generals, samurai, and American pop icons of the World War II era that reappear throughout Shimomura’s work return in the more recent paintings, newer contemporary cultural imagery also comes to the table.  Hello Kitties engaged in various activities surround a Shimomura-like Kitty, painting a Kitty in a bomber. The artist also makes manga-inspired appearances in Naruto Uzumaki and American Sailor Moon. As Shimomura stares us down wearing two pigtails and a radial of spiked, blonde hair, the distinction between merely integrating cultural icons into mainstream American culture and fully recognizing complex cultural identities is as sharp as Shimomura’s seriousness against the sugar-sweet costumes he dons.  His expression says it all:  we still have a long way to go.

Roger Shimomura | Japan, 2012, Acrylic on canvas, 54 x 54 in. Image courtesy of Greg Kucera Gallery.

Roger Shimomura | Naruto Uzumaki, 2011, Acrylic on canvas, 24 x 24 in. Image courtesy of Greg Kucera Gallery.

In his accompanying series of 22 smaller paintings, American Lovers, Shimomura removes himself entirely. Cropping out the excesses of the larger works, American Lovers plays more intimately with visual expectations engrained through the artist’s references—comics, wartime illustrations, pop artists, ukiyo-e prints, Yamato-e paintings. Rearranging gender, race, sexuality and expressions within the tiny frames, the American Lovers are quieter through their scale and tighter focus but unsentimental.  The smiles are laced with the false optimism of the midcentury, and many have an element of absurdity brushed across their surfaces: misaligned kisses, crossed eyes, sickly green flesh.  Both American Knockoff and American Lovers  aren’t about their subjects so much as they are about the way we see them.  A knockoff is only a knockoff when we decide to make a comparison. Shimomura’s paintings change the way we see the familiar, making his work the real deal.

Roger Shimomura | American Lovers #11, 2013, Acrylic on canvas, 8 x 8 in. Image courtesy of Greg Kucera Gallery.

Roger Shimomura | American Lovers #21, 2013, Acrylic on canvas, 8 x 8 in. Image courtesy of Greg Kucera Gallery.


An American Knockoff is on view at Greg Kucera Gallery, in Seattle, WA, through September 28. Roger Shimomura was born in Seattle, WA and currently resides in Lawrence, KS. He received his BA from the University of Washington and his MFA from Syracuse University. His work has been exhibited in recent shows at the Wing Luke Museum (Seattle, WA), the Crow Collection of Asian Art (Dallas, TX), Eight Modern Gallery (Santa Fe, NM), and the Morikami Museum (Delray Beach, FL). His paintings are included in the collections of the Denver Art Museum, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Seattle Art Museum, among many others.

Erin Langner is a writer and museum professional based in Seattle, WA.


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