The upcoming massive exhibition at Contempo #ArtShop at Spalding House, opening June 18, includes a pop-up gallery from the juggernaut collective Giant Robot. Museum regulars should be familiar with the work of one Giant Robot artist—James Jean—whose mural Nervosa III currently keeps watch over Luce Pavilion. June 20 marks Giant Robot Day at #ArtShop, with founder Eric Nakamura, an artist who turned a scrappy zine into an online store and a pair of brick-and-mortar shops in the heart of Los Angeles, leading an art talk and demos with artists Luke Chueh and Rob Sato.
Also on display will be a dozen new works by one of Giant Robot’s rising stars, Yoskay Yamamoto. A mixed-media artist working primarily as a painter and sculptor, Yamamoto’s surrealist paintings tend to set whimsical, anime-inspired characters against dark, realistic backdrops (and have a whiff of Yoshitomo Nara). Sometimes his playful sculptures literally stand on their oversized heads. The art world has taken notice, and Yamamoto’s nonstop output has propelled him far beyond his Los Angeles base.
A veteran of Pow! Wow! Hawaii, Yamamoto is happy to be showing his work once more in Hawai‘i. After seeing teasers of the paintings he’s making just for #ArtShop on his Instagram, we got in touch via email to find out more. At the time of writing this, Yamamoto was still trying to find time between other projects to fly out for the #ArtShop opening.
So far I have seen at least one pair of the acrylic paintings you’re contributing to #ArtShop—On Our Way Home and This Is the Only Place for Me. Are they part of a series?
The two main pieces for #ArtShop are part of my new series that I started working on this year. I have always enjoyed Americana culture and especially its signage, so for the series I have taken the old-fashioned Americana signage as a part of the motif and added a personalized phrase, or positive words, then given a sentimental twist to them. The items where you can tell there’s a sense of time or history are sometimes more magical to me.
For some of the phrasing, I took a line out of a song that I like. For instance, This Is the Only Place for Me is a line from a song by the duo Best Coast from Los Angeles, and the other title, On Our Way Home, is out of the Beatles song “Two of Us.” Some of the other wordings are just combinations of words I like or sayings I enjoy.
Can you discuss the style of surrealist portraiture you’ve developed in these works?
The submerged head is a recurring theme in my work and I find a strong connection with it. I grew up in Japan until I was 15, and now I’m 34 and I have spent more of my life in the States, but a lot of the time I still feel like an outsider in my environment. I also feel that I don’t completely belong to my culture back home, so I’m constantly trying to find the balance and a place that I can call my own place.
Are you still on track to show 11 paintings at #ArtShop?
I will have 12 new paintings and maybe three older works and some sculptures.
So how did you get involved with the Giant Robot collective and its founder Eric Nakamura?
I got invited to the show by Eric Nakamura sometime last year. I have been exhibiting my work with Eric since 2011, and I’m really happy and honored to be able to work with him.
Eric has such a specific taste for art and I feel that he is very selective and he knows what he likes, so it feels pretty special to be able to work with him. Even though Giant Robot has had a big part in the Los Angeles art scene, at the same time it operates on the outer rim of the art circle in LA. Giant Robot is kind of a misfit in the LA art scene but in a good way.
Do you think being self-taught helped make you stand out? How did you teach yourself to draw, paint, and work in different media?
I have taken some art courses in community college—figure drawing, sculpture, photography and so on—so I’m not 100 percent self-taught, but most of the material and way I make art—the process—is very much my own. I enjoy woodcarving quite a lot, but I think a person who went through the traditional way of learning woodcarving would say that I’m doing it all wrong.
Are you excited to be showing works once more in Hawai‘i?
I have been to Hawai‘i twice, first when I was 19 with my host family that I was staying with at the time, and the second time I was invited to be part of Pow! Wow! Hawaii in 2013. The experience that I got from Pow! Wow! Hawaii was one of the most inspiring I have ever gotten in my travels. I have a lot of love for the Pow! Wow! familia.
See the full Contempo #ArtShop schedule.