Japanese artist toys with history, gender in Warhol exhibit

Kurt Shaw
| Saturday, Oct. 12, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

From Johannes Vermeer's masterwork “Girl With a Pearl Earring” to Edouard Manet's groundbreaking “Olympia,” famous paintings from the past appear larger than life at the Andy Warhol Museum, seemingly shaking the seventh floor with their bright colors and elaborate frames.

But these are not the masterpieces they appear to be at first glance. They are the works of Japanese artist Yasumasa Morimura, and, perhaps even more surprising, each of the people depicted in the large-scale photographic works is Morimura himself, dressed up as each of the subjects, all in an effort to mine art history.

“Growing up in Japan, I had no chance to go to museums, especially to see Western Art,” says the 62-year-old artist. “All I could find was what I could look up in art history books.”

So entranced with Western Art was Morimura that, he says, “I wanted to enter each painting to get a better understanding of art history.”

Like the work of Andy Warhol, Morimura's work in his solo exhibit “Yasumasa Morimura: Theater of the Self” nods to the greats of art history, as well as some of the most memorable moments in world history, as well.

A retrospective of Morimura's 30-year career, “Theater of the Self” is divided into three sections — Art History, Requiem and Actresses.

As visitors will see in the Art History section, many of Morimura's pieces take the form of large-scale works that bend common conceptions surrounding the body, sexual identity, national borders and the very construction of history and culture.

For example, in “Mona Lisa in Its Pregnancy” (1998), Morimura's face takes the place of Leonardo da Vinci's famous sitter. The body is nude and pregnant. And behind the subject, the background is filled with deteriorating urban sprawl being overcome by nature, adapted from a photograph Morimura took of abandoned buildings in Japan.

This piece, like all of Morimura's pieces, is a self-portrait constructed through detailed props, sets and costumes as Morimura reimagines both iconic images and his own self.

Perhaps no piece sums this up better than “Portrait (Futago),” which is the central work of the exhibition. Created in 1988, it was first displayed in Pittsburgh in 1992, in the Carnegie Museum of Art's Forum Gallery.

Based on Manet's “Olympia,” Morimura's photograph shows him posing as a now gender-ambiguous prostitute and the black servant who brings her a gift from a customer. Humorously, a maneki-neko (Japanese cat charm) stands at the corner of the bed, waving at the viewer, instead of the elegant black cat of Manet's masterpiece.

It's worth noting that this piece was created before the advent of digital photography programs, such as Photoshop. So, each aspect of the image — the background, props, etc. — had to be re-created painstakingly by hand.

“It was created entirely by analog means,” says Morimura, pointing out that the image of himself as the servant is actually a different photograph imposed into the upper right quadrant of the original base image. This was done simply, yet ingeniously, by dividing the piece into four equal quadrants.

Although the majority of the Art History portion of the exhibit plays on the art of painters past, it also pays tribute to some of contemporary art's great minds, including self-portraitist and photographer Cindy Sherman in “To My Little Sister: For Cindy Sherman” (1998).

Morimura explains this endearing title: “I learned that Cindy Sherman also did self-portraits, so I had sympathy for her because she was an artist doing the same thing at the same time and a different place.

“I wrote a letter to Cindy Sherman (about the work), so she responded that ‘I am so excited about that.' So I sent a small size of this work to her, and she sent back her own work to me.”

In the Requiem section of the exhibit Morimura shows a series of videos and photographs that depict famous events, speeches, films and figures of the 20th century, including “A Requiem: Oswald, 1963” (2006), which re-creates the famous Time magazine photo of the arrest of John F. Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.

Others feature images of such influential figures as Mao Zedong, Ernesto “Che” Guevara and even Hitler, though here through the filter of Charlie Chaplin's film “The Great Dictator.”

Morimura began the series in 2000, and he says he saw the dawn of the new millennium as the inspiration for this series. “People tend to forget, so this is why I gave homage so as not to forget things in the 20th century,” he says. “It is a requiem for the 20th century in the 21st century.”

Parallels between the art of Warhol and Morimura can be drawn throughout the exhibit primarily through the focus on gender, self-portraiture and commercialism (as well as in a video where he plays Warhol as an artist and Warhol in drag), but it is most obvious in the Actresses section of the exhibit.

There, visitors will find a video of Morimura dressed as Elvis playing with silver balloons in a makeshift version of Warhol's Factory, as well as a series of 40 small silver gelatin prints, each with Morimura posing in drag.

Described by Morimura as “freestyle scenes,” in each of the latter, the artist adopts the look and mannerism of famous actresses from Audrey Hepburn to Elizabeth Taylor, but with Morimura's own invented pose and setting. The lack of labels with titles forces the viewer to rely on their own knowledge of pop culture.

Despite this being the largest of the artist's U.S. exhibits, Morimura says of the retrospective, “This is only a small part of my work.”

Indeed, it is merely a glimpse into a thought-provoking career that simultaneously explores and destroys the boundaries of art and identity.

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at kshaw@tribweb.com.

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