Tomoo Gokita

Tomoo Gokita Interview - By Steven Cox

Hunted Projects has been in dialogue with Tokyo based artist Tomoo Gokita, discussing his past, routines and solo exhibition at Mary Boone Gallery that occurred earlier this year. Within the exhibition, Tomoo exhibited a series of noir-esque paintings that explored dated archetypes, as well as the female performer, ranging from Geisha’s to the Playboy Showgirl.

“My father was designing the advertisement pages of the Japanese edition of the magazine Playboy that was launched in 1975. Because of this, a large quantity of copies of Playboy was in my father's room, and I used to look at them in secret every single day…Those copies of vintage Playboy are naturally in my studio now.”

Within the interview Tomoo discusses his childhood of being exposed to the world of Playboy magazines and how the sexualized nature of the imagery has influenced his work. Paintings such as Playboy 2012, Bunny Girls 2012, Captive Bunny 2013 highlight his continued interest in exploring the female figure through the lens of the showgirl, spotlighting their beauty whilst simultaneously blurring, obscuring and making abstract the physical features that are paid less attention through the wondering eyes of the voyeur.

Gokita’s black and white paintings simultaneously suggest nostalgia for a time past and gone, where fantasy has replaced reality to create fantastical neo-surrealist abstract/figurative hybrid works. The abstract sections of Gokita’s amalgamations are created through the application of diverse painterly techniques: bold block colours, sharp gradients and fades, that collectively, not only showcase one’s painterly skill, though reference the sharp chiaroscuro-esque lighting techniques synonymous with film noir.

Without further ado, a huge thank you must be given to Yukari Nakayama, who helped translate this dialogue between Hunted Projects and Tomoo Gokita. Thank you.

Steven Cox: I would like to open up our interview by discussing your recent exhibition at Mary Boone Gallery, New York. This exhibition was a display of abstract figurative paintings. The titles were very descriptive, informing the viewer of specific archetypes. Can you tell me when you began to explore these archetypes and why they are important to you?

Tomoo Gokita: Firstly, the fact is that the titles are just like jokes to me and not so important. It is a bit difficult to explain, but I think that the titles are a kind of extra throw-in attachment to the paintings, so to a certain extent I name them at random. Trusting my intuition, I decide on the titles as obediently and simply as possible depending on how I see and feel about the works. Sometimes I use the titles of existing pieces of music of which my works remind me. Regarding the archetypes of the works, since I have neither any particular concepts nor any strategies, it is difficult to explain that as well. Above all, I am hardly thinking about anything. I am quite simple and simplistic. In straight terms, I am a stupid person (laughs).

SC: What captures my attention is that you reference areas of interest that inadvertently constructs a personal profile of yourself. I would like to discuss song titles a little later, though for now I would like to discuss your exploration of the female performer as portrayed through these works, in particular Torture Garden, Showgirl and Geisha Girl (all 2013). You seem to explore different variations of the female performer, as each owns a different connotation. Can you tell me about your reasons to explore these figures within the exhibition?

TG: There are no particular reasons, I’m afraid. It is only that various female figures have come together accidentally. Still, if I dare to say, it is because I simply love women (laughs), and also because many of my works have been created out of the inspiration I received from 1960s and 70s pornographic magazines, and from various old printed materials that have been lying around. I don’t know why, but I have a tendency to be strongly attracted by photographs and images of women appearing in those books and magazines that were printed in the days when the printing techniques were still poor. Those images stimulate my motivation for creation.

SC: There is a noticeable fascination with the sexualized nature of the female figure in your work. You have explored this through the entertainment angle of Playboy bunnies and showgirls: Playboy 2012, Bunny Girls 2012, Captive Bunny 2013, Madam Barnum 2012 and Showgirl 2013. Can you tell me why there is a specific focus on the Playboy brand?

TG: It goes back to my childhood. My father was designing the advertisement pages of the Japanese edition of the magazine Playboy that was launched in 1975. Because of this, a large quantity of copies of Playboy was in my father's room, and I used to look at them in secret every single day. I can assert that my bunny girl and showgirl pictures were influenced by that experience. Well, I can say this a complete trauma. Those copies of vintage Playboy are naturally in my studio now.

SC: You regularly replace human faces with gradients, shapes and circular dots for eyes. I am intrigued to know why you are fascinated with deforming the human face within your paintings, whilst you maintain the features of humans within your drawings/zines.

TG: I am presuming that to deform the human face might be a reaction against my practice of depicting them like crazy when I was young. Probably, I have become tired of depicting faces. Also, I have loved the masked wrestlers of the Mexican Lucha libre and those masks in Africa all this time, and a kind of transformational desire “to hide a face and to become a different character”, which can be symbolized in those masks, may have affected my work. I suppose there exists a certain ghoulish curiosity towards monsters and deformities, too. Regarding the drawings, as I mentioned earlier, they are more like practices and close to being simple reproductions, so drawing human faces as they are gives me a pleasant sensation.

SC: It is interesting that you reference wrestlers, is your painting Cactus Jack, 2012, an indirect reference to the WWE wrestler of the same name?

TG: Yes, it is. Though there is no profound meaning, when I was watching the finished painting, the name of Cactus Jack suddenly come into my mind without any reason, so I just decided it as the title, just like that.

SC: I am aware that you regularly produce sketches and zines. It seems that your process of making work begins from drawing. Can you tell me about your process of working and how you select which sketches and drawings become paintings?

TG: Yes, certainly, I used to begin to work from drawing until a few years ago, but recently it has become quite rare for me to develop my drawings into paintings. For me, the drawings are more realistic (they could be described as simple reproductions), while on the other hand, the paintings have become more improvisational and more abstract. So, sensuously speaking, these two are different things. The early stages of my recent paintings have started from completely abstract paintings. These are fairly interesting as they are, but I go through a process of finding forms from them, which then become gradually concrete and figurative.

SC: Your paintings seem to relate back to your drawings for your paintings monochromatic palette could be seen as an enlargement or re-interpretation of a drawing? Do you consider the monochromatic palette central to your work? Do you ever consider adding brighter colours?

TG: Even though my recent paintings were not exactly begun from drawings, I still love the strength, profoundness and complexities that the monochromatic palette owns, and I believe there are still many more possibilities in it. So, I suppose I will continue to create monochromatic paintings as a central part of my work. Nevertheless, to be honest, recently I have been getting a little bit tired of them, and I have just started creating more colorful paintings with colors. Well, I am open to doing anything from now on.

SC: Relating your drawings to your zines, can you tell me about your process of making the zines and how you decided which drawings/found images to include? Are you continuing to make zines today? If so, can you tell me about them?

TG: Actually, most of my zines were not made spontaneously or through my own motivation, but rather were commissioned from somebody else. Consequently, I would both steadily and hastily create many drawings in time for the deadline, and then choose certain pieces properly or sometimes casually in a way from the final selection. From there, the drawings were arranged together whilst I wasn’t thinking anything in particular. I simply felt as if I were playing with pieces of paper. But, recently, I have not made any zines. To be frank, it is getting a bit tiresome to make them.

SC: By viewing your zines, I happen to see a relationship with the once hugely popular San Francisco based zine culture. Due to your geographic positioning, was the lowbrow culture of the West Coast of America influential to you?

TG: I have often been asked similar questions, but speaking frankly, it was absolutely not an influence. I don’t even know about the lo-brow culture well. I am ignorant.

SC: You said earlier that your paintings are improvised which is very unexpected; can you tell me about the hurdles you encounter during your process of painting if there is no set vision in mind? Also, how and when do you decide that a painting is complete?

TG: To start the work in an improvisational way causes various unexpected accidents. These accidents allow me to perceive some confusion and wonder, and they provide me with a strange motivation to create works, which is so stimulating that I feel a distinct pleasure. Then during the course of completing the works, I encounter a lot of hurdles, and there are roughly two main ones. One is "something is insufficient", and the other is "too much is added". If I can manage to clear up these two problems, the work would be almost completed.

SC: Another thing I am interested in is the destructive side of the artist; do you view your own work as precious? If you are unhappy with a work, do you tend to destroy it or would you rather put it in storage for a while and alter them at a later date?

TG: I am not considering my own work as precious at all. When I feel unhappy with some works, I positively and freely cut them, tear them up, and sometimes even burn them (laughs). I have not been interested in preserving the works basically since my early days. It is just like, "Storage? Please let someone else do it! What I want to do is to create the next work."

SC: Can you tell me about your day-to-day working routine? What is a regular day within your studio like? 

TG: Every day, my children wake me up at 6:00 a.m. I make breakfast, we eat it together and I go to my studio at 8:00 a.m. While listening to the same boring radio and smoking the same brand of cigarettes every day, I make paintings and drawings. By 6:00 p.m., I get worn out and go back home to take a bath and drink cold beer. Every day is just like that. (laughs).

SC: Song names are often used to title paintings, and I find there is often an interesting connection when this is the case. For instance, Kookie Limbo and Kookie Limbo Again, both 2012, reference the somewhat unknown musician Kookie Joe. Can you discuss the genres of music that tends to play within your studio, and how you feel these sounds and songs become entwined within your paintings?

TG: Since the old days, I have openly declared that, "I prefer to buy music records rather than art catalogues." My creative sensibility is somehow much more stimulated by viewing the cover jackets in record shops than by viewing works of art in museums and galleries. Rock, Folk, Blues, Jazz, Funk, Soul, Disco, Techno, New-Wave, Noise, Ska/Reggae, Dub, Punk and Experimental. This list sounds like the shelves of a record shop (laughs), but actually I do listen to everything. For instance, the other day, I was so excited that the title of the music I was listening to, while painting, coincidentally and perfectly suited that particular painting. On the other hand, when I have trouble trying to decide the title of one of my paintings, I often look for some suitable titles that would go well by looking at the backsides of record sleeves. This is also a pleasant time.

SC: Your next exhibition titled The Great Circus opens at the Kawamura Memorial DIC Museum of Art on the 31 August. Can you tell me a little about the work that will be exhibited?

TG: It is something like a so-called retrospective exhibition, as more than half of the works to be exhibited are from the past. Since a “retrospective” exhibition sounds as if I had already passed away, I have a slightly complex feeling about it (laughs), but of course, I am extremely pleased that the works that have previously only been viewed at galleries abroad like in New York will also be included in this show and can be seen in my home country. I am looking forward to the show.

SC: I am intrigued to know if there is a specific work within your oeuvre that is particularly important to you?

TG: I am not certain whether it is an important work, but I cannot forget the sense of accomplishment that struck me when I finished a painting called Slash and Thrust, which was exhibited in a group show in New York in 2008. Triggered by this work, various things and events have developed. Nevertheless, this painting was completed in only about three hours, and it is still a mystery to me how it could have been finished so quickly.

SC: I am also interested to know what your thoughts are on some of your earlier works in relation to your newest paintings. What do you think of the works in terms of appearance? Do you feel there has been any dramatic developments or changes?

TG: After all, it is a kind of my established theory that I can say with confidence that my newest work is always the best work. As for the past works, I may say that only their faults can be recognized, and I feel somehow a bit embarrassed. I think that a dramatic change for me happened in 2006, when my focus on creation was suddenly transformed from drawings to paintings, as well as from paper to canvas. The whole situation has completely changed since then, and now here I am.

SC: For this exhibition, will you be exhibiting many new works? Will there be a publication printed to celebrate your work?

TG: The new works for this exhibition are to be 10 tableaux, 30 small (colorful!) works on paper and also 150 (might be more) much smaller drawings. As for publications, I expect this exhibition catalogue as well as another catalogue of my works to be published within this year.

All images courtesy of Tomoo Gokita, Mary Boone Gallery, Bill Brady/KC and Taka Ishi Gallery

Tomoo Gokita