Art Basel Miami '13 Interview Series: Masato Yamaguchi Talks Bringing Plastic Painting to SCOPE Art Show

The artist shares the details behind a new medium he's pioneered and gives advice to aspiring game-changers.

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

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Japanese contemporary artist Masato Yamaguchi works in a wide variety of sources, mixing images from pop culture, advertising, and mass-produced materials to create his own works. He has exhibited his art all over the world, mostly in Tokyo and New York galleries. Now the artist is showing work at the SCOPE art fair in Miami as a part of Art Basel Miami Beach this week.

For the fair, he is showing a series of works that mix tropes from famous artists and preserve them in plastic. Yamaguchi writes on his website, "Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst, Yayoi Kusama, Roy Lichtenstein, Bridget Riley, street artists KAWS and Space Invader. I’ve taken characteristics from each of these artists’ masterpieces, consolidated them into individual graphics. Careful to preserve their superficial aesthetics, the complex backgrounds and context of each work are assimilated into a solid piece." His work plays with the cannon of contemporary art and themes of collection, preservation, and dissemination of art. We asked Yamaguchi about his plans for Miami.

What work are you bringing with you to Art Basel Miami Beach/SCOPE this year with Giant Mango Gallery? Did you make it especially for the fair?
I’ll be showing a mix of new works for SCOPE, along with some I’ve shown elsewhere. My "DotSAMPLEs" series, which is new for SCOPE, is a sampling of numerous different styles and aesthetics from artists that I respect, which I’ve taken and sealed in plastic, as a butterfly collector would pin and display his specimens. I’ll also be showing some brand new pieces from my “Plastic Painting” series, which follows the same concept of mashing up existing styles and imagery.

What do you like and dislike about showing work in the setting of a fair?
On one hand, I really love showing my stuff at a fair, because, as in a farmer’s market or something, my creations become just one of a vast array of different items for potential buyers to choose from. There’s something lovely about my works becoming like a tomato on a shelf, alongside various other things.

On the other hand, I’m not able to create a fully designed world in which people can view my work. At an exhibition I can create a complete experience, which is not really possible at a fair.

You've previously said that years of struggle, searching for your identity, and exploring Japanese and non-Japanese cultures led to the form of expression you've refined now. How else did you arrive at plastic painting?
To be honest, arriving at and elaborating my concept was the biggest challenge leading up to this project. Once the concept was in place, I had a very clear idea of how it was supposed to look. That was just a long process of trial and error with printers, plastic molders etc… kind of boring technical stuff.

How is plastic painting a "remix"?
Tokyo as a city is a melange of cultures and traditions from all over the world. The city samples from Western architecture and society, and creates a sort of mash-up of its own. Invariably however, the result is a sort of plastic replica of these other world cultures, not only in the cheap and modern materials now used to build the city, but also on a deeper level. The buildings and structures in Tokyo are in many ways superficial recreations of staples of other cultures. My "Plastic Paintings: are informed and inspired by that same plastic “mash-up” or “remix” kind of mentality that defines my city.

What are the potential of new creative movements, such as plastic painting, to you?
There are a number of artists who are now elevating the practice of sampling and mash-ups to a higher level of quality than they’ve ever been before. For example, The Gregory Brothers on YouTube are mashing up cultural memes with music and visuals, and though this approach has been around for a while, they’re doing it with a very high level of quality in the production and presentation of it. In Japan there’s Takashi Murakami’s concept of “Super Flat” culture, or KAWS in America whose works mash-up pop culture and high art into something new and unique. With "Plastic Painting: I’m aiming for something like the “Super Flat” concept, and I’m anticipating more and more artists working in a similar vein in the future.

How did growing up in Tokyo and studying economics influence your practice? Had you always planned to be a visual artist?
When I was 16, I went to see a massive Andy Warhol exhibition in Tokyo. This was the point at which I fell completely in love with art. From there I discovered Jeff Koons, Jasper Johns, and other American artists, and I soon began to dig deeper into the history of art back to the invention of surrealism and so on. From then on I decided absolutely that I would be an artist, and that art would be my life and livelihood.

When it came time to enter University, I didn’t feel the need to study Art at an institution, as I would do that on my own no matter what. Instead I chose to learn economics, as I definitely woudn’t or couldn’t study that on my own, and it might allow me to see and understand art and culture in a more global context.

When I left University I started doing video and design work for Japanese musicians such as SOIL&”PIMP”SESSIONS, Shiina Ringo, APOGEE, Rocketman and others, while also pursuing my own individual projects.

What visual artists did you grow up admiring? Do you feel like you've translated any of their aesthetic or practices into your art-making?
Some of my favorites in 90s’ were of course Andy Warhol, Marcel Duchamp, André Breton, Mike Mills, Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze, Groovisions, and Mitsuo Shindo. Not only visual artists, but musicians have had a huge impact on me as well. I love Plastics, Cornelius, DOOPEES, Stock, Hausen & Walkman, Kraftweak, Avalanches, Daft Punk and others. I think they’ve all effected my approach and my aesthetic in one way or another.

What music are you listening to these days?
Recently I’m listening a lot to my friends Josh and Chris, who are Americans living in Tokyo making music under the name Halcyon Tone. They not only create funky, catchy music that you can dance to, but there’s a degree of parody in what they do. They make all the music themselves, but similarly to my projects they mix a wide variety of different genres and styles into their work, even going so far as to create original characters for the different song and styles they work in. I can really relate to their aesthetic.

What's your advice for aspiring artists creating in new mediums?
I think the most important thing is to realize, or to discover your concept within the physical materials you use to create. Traditional art starts on the canvas, but if you’re working in a new medium you need to find a connection between the nature of the material, and the concept you hope to express through it. That’s maybe the most difficult, but most important step.

What are your plans after Miami? Any upcoming exhibitions or projects to keep on our radar?
There’s nothing on the calendar yet, but I’m planning to continue exploring this concept moving forward. I’ve spent a lot of time showing my work in Tokyo, so I’ll be looking to show in America and Europe more in the future. I welcome any invitations to show my stuff, so exhibitors should feel free to give me call!

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