Elation was almost palpable at the opening of “The Great Circus,” Tomoo Gokita’s impressive first museum solo exhibition at Kawamura Memorial DIC Museum of Art in Chiba. For many in attendance — not the least Gokita himself — that he would be the subject of such attention was a coup. The handsome 45-year-old, who frequently expresses his love for beer and professional wrestling, and who still lives within a five-minute walk from his parents’ house in Chofu, confessed, “I never imagined this would happen.” For the last decade or so that he has been painting seriously, he has been all but ignored by the Japanese art world, which sees him, in his own words, “As that guy who designs T-shirts.”
In a 2000 interview in Kokoku Hihyo magazine, Gokita, who first gained recognition in Tokyo’s subculture scene of the 1990s, said he still considered himself, with notable ambivalence, an illustrator. He likened the relationship between fine artists and illustrators to that of martial artists and professional wrestlers. “These days, though, wrestlers beat martial artists in MMA matches,” he noted. “If I could do that in art, then I’m fine being an illustrator.”
That statement proved prophetic. Though he is an unlikely successor to the New York school of neo-expressionism of the 1980s, in January he held a sold-out solo exhibition at New York’s esteemed Mary Boone Gallery, which represented that scene’s biggest painters, such as Julian Schnabel, whom Gokita also lists as early influences.
“The Great Circus” brings together approximately 90 works, nearly all of which were made in the last six years. Gokita’s paintings are typically black and white and mix abstract brushwork with monstrously deformed figures and lowbrow imagery. The combination of his compositions, which betray his graphic-design sensibility, and his undeniable virtuosity with paint deliver their effects quickly and will wow most viewers.
By far the strongest painting in the show is “Scorn” (2011). In this work, which depicts a bust of a woman wearing a dress and sporting a hairstyle suggestive of the 1960s, Gokita gets it just right. He perfectly balances the melancholy seductiveness of the soft gradations of gray, recalling an out-of-focus photograph, with an obscured face (a recurring image in his paintings) — this time beautifully scraped (read: gouged) to create an emotional, and visual, push-and-pull.
As if to deflect the viewer’s fascination with the scraped surface, Gokita paints a side-turned S-shaped squiggle atop the scrape where a mouth would be. The move reflects the artist’s coyness about seeming too serious. He titled one of his most accomplished new abstract paintings “Kushiyaki Class Reunion” (2014), after a Japanese skewered dish, in reference to the straight horizonal line of circular forms in it because, he explained, “straightforward abstraction would be embarrassing.”
Gokita certainly knows what works. He produced “New Sad” (2014), which is loosely painted with admirable reductivism, specifically with its use in promotional materials in mind. The paintings produced for his Mary Boone exhibition, such as the redoubtable “Captive Bunny” (2013) depicting a bunny girl held hostage by a man in a tuxedo, are immediately rewarding, but they also feel calculated and rigid. In this work, nothing is left to chance and the pressure Gokita felt to make the Mary Boone show successful is apparent. Both figures’ faces are obscured — the man’s with a tight zigzag pattern and the woman’s with contrasting blobs gradated with formidable smoothness and countered by flatly and opaquely painted triangles that replace her legs.
“I only realized later,” he said, “that there’s nothing haphazard — not even an accidental drip-in them.”
What interests Gokita most is the process of moving paint on canvas. This is why gradation has played such a key role in his mature works. In the artist’s words, his latest paintings, of which he produced 10 in just one month, are “unfinished” in comparison, and suggest a new direction that is more gestural and improvised.
The show also includes groupings of his small drawings, “Untitled” (works on paper, 2008-2014), that Gokita sees more as “journal entries than finished works.” Individually framed by the artist, these drawings, in which he lets his influences show freely, are a treat. In them we find a fantastic world of tough guys and seductive dames, as well as inflections from Raymond Pettibon and Christopher Wool, which inform but are sublimated in his more formal paintings.
In his large-scale paintings, art mavens will see traces of other artists, such as a hand recalling Pablo Picasso’s in “Showgirl” (2013). Gokita’s works, however, never feel derivative. Despite the range of influences it references, the exhibition appears consistent due to his highly developed vocabulary of images and techniques. His motifs have changed little since 2008, or even 2000.
Gokita’s world has always been a hard-boiled and surreal one, but both his ability and status as a painter have changed significantly. It will be interesting to see how his works will develop once the artist no longer feels shy about being a serious painter.
“Tomoo Gokita: The Great Circus” at the Kawamura Memorial DIC Museum of Art runs till Dec. 24; 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. ¥1,200. Closed Mon. kawamura-museum.dic.co.jp
Taro Nettleton is Adjunct Professor at Temple University Japan.