The blotchy, salty self-portrait that confronts you as you enter Tadanori Yokoo’s exhibition of recent work “B29 and Homeland: From My Childhood to Andy Warhol” (2018) has a hangman’s noose in the top left corner. This recalls one of the artist’s most renowned works, the 1965 “Having Reached a Climax at the Age of 29, I Was Dead,” a vividly colored and exuberant silkscreen print that juxtaposed the image of a hanged man with the backdrop of the Rising Sun flag design.
While the earlier graphic design inflected work is gleefully offensive, the self-portrait is more muted and reflective: The background is black, and Yokoo’s chin nestles in the Y shape formed by his hand. His face looks to be on fire, with his hair doubling as billows of black and gray smoke; his expression is halfway between pensive and dumbfounded. “What the hell have I done?,” he could be asking; or, as he is looking straight out at us, “Who the devil are you?”
It’s probably not necessary to pin down exactly what Yokoo wants to say in his self-portrait, but, like all the works in this mournful, jokey and nightmarish exhibition, it wants to be read. In “Gilgamesh and MP” (2019), we have words and letters painted in the composition to prompt our interpretation. The name Gilgamesh appears at the feet of the Sumerian hero, and above him is a B-29 Superfortress. As well as the original ancient poem “Epic of Gilgamesh,” another intertextual reference evoked is Hermann Kasack’s 1947 novel “The City Beyond the River,” that reframes the ancient myth in the ruins of postwar Germany.
In the painting “Last B29,” (2019) the figures 444, 5 and 0 appear in the picture space with a similar enigmatic aura that Jasper Johns imbued numerals with his number paintings. These figures aren’t randomly explored for their form though; the 444th Bombardment Group was responsible for bombing Kobe in Yokoo’s home prefecture of Hyogo, and the U.S. 5th Air Force has been based in Japan since 1945. The 0 I’m not sure about, but I guess it’s nothing cheerful.
Next to a picture of Gen. Douglas MacArthur is a portrait of the Showa Era (1926-89) singer Hamako Watanabe, whose act started out as sexually titillating and subject to censorship until the late 1930s, but who later sang patriotic songs to the Japanese troops in Taiwan and mainland China. Should we read this as a corollary to what Yokoo is doing?
There’s a wall of small portraits, many of which portray Andy Warhol combined with the word “sale.” One has the white-haired impresario as Hitler. Is this pique at sometimes having been described as Japan’s Andy Warhol, perhaps with some general finger-pointing at the West, and a plea for art as a spiritual activity, rather than monetary enterprise?
These Warhol digs and the centrality to the exhibition of Japan’s defeat in World War II are provocative of course. However, the exhibition doesn’t feel like a polemic so much as an exploration of personal memories, fears and anxieties. This comes through in Yokoo’s painting technique, which is rough and seemingly slapdash. Faces, landscapes and bodies are distorted by this naive style, like Yokoo is struggling to remember how things were, or unable to portray them without being disturbed by his own subconscious. The use of photography as the basis for the images still comes through, though, strongly hinting at the gap between memory and history.
In contrast to Yokoo’s freewheeling and provocative poster-designing days, “B29 and Homeland” seems to be ponderous and dark, but I doubt it should be taken completely seriously. Yokoo once delighted in yanking Japanese chains, now he’s yanking the Yankees’.
“B29 and Homeland: From My Childhood to Andy Warhol” at SCAI The Bathhouse in Tokyo, runs util July 6; free. For more information, visit www.scaithebathhouse.com/en.