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Pop art packs a punch

Roger Shimomura's An American Knockoff at Tacoma Art Museum

“American Infamy #5” acrylic on canvas, collection of Jordan Schnitzer, Portland, Ore. Courtesy photo

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The Roger Shimomura painting exhibition at Tacoma Art Museum mines the tradition of pop art and the history of Japanese-American relations to skewer prejudice and stereotype with painfully satirical paintings.

Shimomura, an American artist living in Seattle, was born to a Japanese family shortly before the outbreak of World War II. He and his family were interned in the Minidoka War Relocation Camp in Idaho for two years when he was a small child. Wall text for the show states that his earliest memories are from the camp. Much of the history of his years at Minidoka are illustrated in paintings in this exhibition.

"Far too many American-born citizens of Asian descent continue to be thought of as only American knockoffs," Shimomura writes. "This latest series of paintings is an attempt to ameliorate the outrage of these misconceptions by depicting myself battling those stereotypes, or in tongue-in-cheek fashion, becoming those very same stereotypes."

There are self-portraits of the artist in the guise of American icons including George Washington, Superman, Popeye, Mickey Mouse, and a host of comic book characters. We see him fighting other Americans, and we see him fighting Japanese, Chinese and other enemies, all to satirically prove himself real. In some of these battles - most noticeably those with the Chinese, wherein he appears as Chairman Mao among other apparitions - he is battling the notion that all Asians look alike.

Although most of his images attack stereotypes with humor, his paintings of life in the internment camp are dead serious depictions of too-real history.

The most powerful image in the show, both graphically and in terms of content, is "American Infamy #5." Painted in a comic-book style, it is a birds'-eye view of the camp with three soldiers on a guard tower in the foreground. Two of the soldiers are holding rifles; one mans a machine gun. In a printed statement, the artist explains that while the government said the machine guns were aimed outside, they were in fact aimed inward at the people living in the camps. Ominous black clouds hang over the camp.  One of the soldier's faces is black and in shadow, while the other one grimaces. None look toward the viewer. It is a menacing image.

Also powerful is a simple group of 10 small, childlike paintings depicting 10 days in the camp. One of the last ones is called "Santa comes to visit in the mess hall." Santa is seen in silhouette through a window and behind barbed wire. Next to it is a picture of when a child from back home in Seattle comes to visit and they can touch each other only by reaching through the barbed wire.

The paintings are executed in a style derived from comic books and from pop art. The majority of them are  large, colorful, and beautifully designed, with figures grouped to create abstract patterns that force the eye to move around the canvas. One group of four paintings acknowledges Shimomura's influences by containing a "brushstroke" borrowed from Roy Lichtenstein and copies of Andy Warhol's portraits of Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor in collage-like compositions with Japanese women in traditional garb.

"Halloween" depicts a group of kids trick-or-treating in Halloween costumes. They are all white except for one African-American, and they are chasing the kid in the Japanese soldier costume like angry villagers with pitchforks and brooms chasing the Frankenstein monster. In a wall text, the artist explains that when they were kids nobody wanted to wear the Japanese costume because they were all taught to hate and fear the Japanese. In various forms, some humorous and some not, this is the underlying message of all his paintings.

This is the kind of show that makes Tacoma Art Museum a local treasure.

ROGER SHIMOMURA'S "AN AMERICAN KNOCKOFF", Tue.-Sun. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Third Thursday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., through Sept. 13, $12-$14, Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave. Tacoma, www.tacomaartmuseum.org

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