Artist Roger Shimomura is no stranger to Seattle audiences. A Seattle native who has lived in Lawrence, Kansas for many years, Shimomura has been showing at the Greg Kucera Gallery in Pioneer Square since 1985. Also familiar to many local viewers are Shimomura’s large murals in the Westlake Station of the downtown bus tunnel.
Much of Roger Shimomura’s work reflects his experience as an American of Japanese descent, experiences that include his family’s relocation to an internment camp during World War II. Now the Bellevue Art Museum is hosting, An American Diary, a show featuring 30 paintings based on his grandmother’s accounts of that period. The works are the centerpiece of an exhibition making its last stop in Seattle after an extensive national tour. The show has been widely heralded as both an educational and an artistic event. For the artistic perspective, here is KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin.
Almost everything about the An American Diary show at the Bellevue Art Museum is modest. The paintings themselves, though numerous, are small and extremely restrained, in mood, style, and color. The excerpts from grandmother Toku Shimomura’s diaries, engraved on little plaques below each painting, are mild in tone and terse in language. Though the events that Toku describes, the temporary ethnic cleansing of the US West Coast in the 1940s, was a major trauma for thousands of people like herself, her sense of anger and despair is mostly to be read between the lines. The paintings address this historical wrong quietly, and ironically.
The current show depends heavily on familiar comic book precedents for the narrative look of the panels. The beautifully drawn characters and settings are simple, cleanly outlined and filled in with wan, flat color. Occasional comic celebrities make an appearance, alter egos for an aroused Uncle Sam. A squinting Dick Tracy, for example, fills the foreground of one image, peering through a lens at the fingerprints of Grandmother Shimomura, whose featureless silhouette is seen waiting passively in the doorway beyond. “I finally decided to register my fingerprints today after putting this off for a long time” writes Toku laconically. In another panel heavy with irony, Superman himself is seen landing just outside the Shimomura house, as Grandmother writes of her appreciation of “American large-heartedness” in the days just after the beginning of the war. We know better — Superman is not in fact coming to her rescue — he is instead about to save us from her.
The sheer artistic skill of Roger Shimomura both elevates and lightens the effect of the work. The very first painting in the show is a ravishing image of Grandmother half hidden by a shoji screen, with the distinctive shape of the art deco radio in the foreground echoed in her face and the patterns on her dress. One can easily forget the horror of the moment depicted — the announcement of the attack on Pearl Harbor — in admiring the sophistication of the color and design. Other pictures are more successful in conveying the intended message, particularly those which use Shimomura’s style to highlight the bleakness of the camp environment, or come in close on Grandmother’s face and hands as she swallows a sleeping pill or measures her blood pressure.
An even more instructive contrast in tone is provided by comparing the American Diary show with several larger Shimomura paintings in an adjoining galley. One picture in particular, a spectacular tour de force entitled, "A Sansei Story," shows just how much Shimomura is holding back to keep company with his soft-spoken grandmother. This giant painting is an extravaganza of bombastic imagery and glorious excess, a collage of sex, violence, artistic borrowings, childhood memories, and self-portraits, all held together in a brilliant billboard-inspired design.
It will be for each visitor to decide if Roger Shimomura’s quiet treatment of the charged theme of Japanese internment lets them off the hook or draws them further in. Topicality in art, particularly when dealing with sweeping historical events, is never an easy proposition.