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Studio Visit: Tomokazu Matsuyama

A view of art history seen through the eyes of an astute color fanatic

by Karen Day in Culture on 06 March 2013

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Anyone concerned that our increasingly integrated, global world will lead to a homogenized population or uniform culture need to look no further than the artwork of Tomokazu Matsuyama to see how uniquely varied it can be. The Japanese pro snowboarder-turned graphic designer-turned fine artist uses an optimistically hued palette of acrylic paints and a mishmash of specific artistic styles to depict his vision of our melting-pot society. Better known as simply Matsu, his contemporary compositions encompass a past meets present aesthetic and an East meets West approach: they are seriously labor-intensive but with an accessible, Pop Art aesthetic.

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Matsu grew up mostly in Japan, but spent several years in California before moving to NYC, where he's lived for the past decade since completing his MFA at Pratt. His international background and street art friends clearly inform his work, but it's his fascination with color and art history that really leads to such abstract, yet highly controlled works.

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His meticulous process begins with a drawing, which Matsu then maps out like a paint-by-number so that he and his small team can work together to complete the colorful labyrinth of organic shapes, which reflect the distinctly layered and saturated society we live in. With a super steady hand they apply each color, which Matsu often changes once he can really assess how that color is affecting the overarching emotion. Each individual tone is carefully considered, then dutifully logged in one of many binders Matsu keeps on hand—an obsession that undoubtedly one-ups anyone at Pantone.

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He tells us his collaborative method is a lot like cooking, and he is the chef de cuisine. Each creation is the product of his mind and experiences, but his techniques require help. In this way Matsu is similar to artists like Jeff Koons or Murakami, but this style of working harkens back to hundreds of years ago, when it would take a band of artists to produce traditional Ukiyo-e woodblock prints during Japan's Edo period.

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A collector of woodblock prints, Matsu is inspired by Ukiyo-e and traditional Japanese iconography, but he conflates it with modern underpinnings that pull from all aspects of culture. He particularly likes to impose opposing aesthetics into one work. The gingham plaids that often adorn the figures in his paintings are of great significance. He saw the pattern in a catalog for woodblock prints which were created during the time Japan was a closed country. He noticed the same plaid popping up in current fashions, and thought about how this could serve as a mediator within his work.

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When he came across a small wooden statue of one of the four guardians known to protect Buddhist temples—which were also liberally depicted throughout Asian art—he decided to fuse it with a pop culture equivalent, that of Mickey Mouse. To achieve this, Matsu had the original sculpture digitally scanned, then manipulated the CAD drawing and recreated it, now with the guardian donning the quintessential T-shirt he would have picked up during a vacation at Disneyland. In another, he is sporting a classic "I Heart NY" shirt, which pays homage to one of graphic design's most celebrated works. Snow in one painting references Abstract Expressionism, but rather than the random application of paint being an emotion that drives the work, it is instead a function of the work.

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Matsu can speak at length about the individual components in his works and how they connect to one art movement or time period, but he stresses that overall, he works in the abstract and ideally hopes to create a visually pleasing piece that anyone with or without an art history degree can enjoy. An artist that started his career showing in restaurants, Matsu's biography has come to include countless exhibitions at some of the world's premier galleries and museums. Those in NYC can catch a selection of pieces at the upcoming "Edo Pop" show at the Japan Society (keep an eye out for our forthcoming look at this exciting exhibition), which will feature an entire wall painted in gingham plaid.

See more images in the slideshow below. All photos by Karen Day

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