Tomoo Gokita: Exposing the underbelly of pop culture

by John L. Tran

Contributing Writer

Here’s a few soundtrack suggestions for Tomoo Gokita’s “Peekaboo” exhibition of monochromatic paintings at Tokyo Opera City Gallery: Mexican ranchera music by Jose Alfredo Jimenez, some late 1990s to early 2000s Latino hip-hop by Control Machete, a spot of Dean Martin, some easy listening by Henry Mancini and Jose Feliciano covers of The Doors. Also Shirley Bassey’s “Big Spender.”

Gokita is a big music fan, so he would certainly have his own suggestions for what should accompany his expansive one-man show at the gallery. In a long hallway at the end of the exhibition is a grid of Mexican wrestler portraits, each of which includes a reference to a band or song title. The music ranges from classical to classic rock, with sidetracks into eclectic and alternative rock, including the British Foetus Uber Frisco (also known as You’ve Got Foetus on Your Breath and other like-minded variations), which started in the ’80s, and Ween, the U.S. music duo who invented their own demon god “Boognish.”

With this zealous interest in music, and a background in illustration and making zines, Gokita’s core demographic has been subculture vultures. Described in a 2015 ArtAsiaPacific article as a Tokyo artworld outsider, Gokita has specialized in surrealistic deformations of fleshy floozies and Mexican wrestlers with a precision mix of austere black, white and grays, low-brow culture imagery, kookiness and powerfully evocative draftsmanship.

In the large-scale 2018 painting “Patient and Doctor,” a topless couple are shown seated on the ground, the blurred patterning in the background hinting of foliage. Though the brushwork is not detailed or photorealistic, there is a strong sense that the painting was based on a photograph. Neither the man or the woman are, physically speaking, Olympian specimens: The man shows a hint of a paunch, and the woman’s breasts are heavy and pendulous. Their facial features are reduced to cursory marks (in many of Gokita’s paintings faces are more definitely erased or replaced by blank space); one of the woman’s hands has been morphed into the shape of a wooden artist’s mannequin hand, recalling the work of Giorgio de Chirico, and there is an operation scar on her shin. Despite all this, there is a distinctive, seedy voluptuousness to the painting, something of a trademark in Gokita’s work.

Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery has billed Gokita as being the “Hottest Painter Today,” and while there is certainly a nonchalant charm to his work that’s difficult to resist, Gokita’s years-in-the-making overnight success had to be incubated in New York, before he could be celebrated in his home town.

His work in the expansive setting of Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery is certainly a coup, and the claustrophobic, sometimes nightmarish, quality of his paintings takes on an odd grandeur in this setting. As well as single large images, there are a few installations of many smaller works clustered together that cover walls from floor to ceiling.

The most visually stunning of these is a huge agglomeration of small untitled paintings and sketches made between 2008 and 2018. Forming a rough oval about 4 meters tall, in the context of the majority of Gokita’s work being quite morally and emotionally disengaged (some commentators have described it as being a bit “hipster”), this group of images comes across as relatively personal. This is in part because, unlike in his main works, faces appear in these paintings, but also because it’s possible to get a sense of Gokita’s desire to paint irrespective of whether sense can be made of the result or not. Hottest painter today? Possibly. It’s easy to say he’s one of coolest, though.

“Tomoo Gokita: Peekaboo” at Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery runs until June 24; ¥1,200. For more information, visit www.operacity.jp/ag/exh208/index_e.php.