Morimura retrospective at the Warhol presents 'Theater of the Self'

Japanese artist tweaks iconic images by inserting himself into the moment


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Yasumasa Morimura's art may enter your subliminal space before you begin to consciously question what's disturbing about it. That's because he starts with visual imagery already burned into the viewer's psyche and tweaks it in a way that challenges comfortable norms.

"Yasumasa Morimura: Theater of the Self" comprises work from three major ongoing series: "Art History," "Requiem" and "Actresses." In each, Mr. Morimura has substituted his image for the original. The large captivating exhibition at The Andy Warhol Museum reveals the breadth of the Japanese artist's output over three decades and also makes strong argument for his claim to being Warhol's "conceptual son."

His interest in self-portrait, art history, popular culture, gay and transgendered life and celebrity align him with Warhol, said Nicholas Chambers, museum and exhibition curator.

The show is not only a thorough look at an acclaimed contemporary international artist but one with an anchor in Japanese culture and its interrelationship with the West. This is a welcome dip into dialogue initiated on the far side of the Pacific Rim that may be credited to museum director Eric Shiner, who studied in Japan, speaks fluent Japanese and wrote his master's thesis on Mr. Morimura.

When the artist steps into the frame where one expects to find Vermeer's "Girl With a Pearl Earring" ("Vermeer Study: Looking Back (Mirror)") or Manet's "Olympia" ("Portrait (Futago)"), he raises issues of identity and gender, a now somewhat commonplace practice in contemporary art. But as a Japanese he intensifies these, layering in race and cultural influences that have traded on waxing and waning historical exchanges.

He winks as he titles "To My Little Sister: for Cindy Sherman," a work based on the famed American artist's "Untitled #96" of 1981 from her centerfolds series. Mr. Morimura and Ms. Sherman were unaware of one another's practice when each began to deconstruct image, but they have since met, Mr. Chambers said. She visited The Warhol exhibition during opening week.

Mr. Morimura's medium is photography, but such works begin with extensive research as he studies for the character, he said through a translator when here for the exhibition opening. The performative aspect is enhanced by very detailed sets, makeup, costume and complementary artifact.

"It's quite important to have imagination as well as reality," Mr. Morimura said. "The artist lives on the border of imagination and reality."

The artist's "relationship to the canon was always through reproductions," Mr. Chambers said, but the viewer's relationship "is always mediated through photography. There are other disciplines involved ... but in the end it's all about the photograph."

As a photographer Mr. Morimura is technically, as well as aesthetically and conceptually, accomplished, so adept at the craft that he's able to push boundaries to believable if unlikely effect. Evolving digital applications have helped this along, but "Daughter of Art History (Princess A)" was an analog production. The background to the figure inspired by Velazquez's "Las Meninas" was painted on drywall. The artist made the dress and attached it to the drywall into which he cut a hole to stick his head through. Where Warhol comes from the surface, Mr. Chambers observed, Mr. Morimura is "about tactility ... understanding in the nuts and bolts way."

The "Requiem" art, drawn from photographic images, contrasts with the "Art History" section as much in source medium as in subject. "It's a dividing line between the 20th century and the centuries before," said Mr. Chambers, "when the preeminent mode of representing the world shifts from painting to photography."

Representative and timely is "A Requiem: Oswald," a remake of the harrowing photojournalistic image of when President Kennedy's assassin Lee Harvey Oswald is shot. Mr. Morimura subs for all of the players.

"A Requiem: Mishima" is a 71/2-minute video in which the artist performs as Yukio Mishima, a right-wing activist who in 1970 made an impassioned speech decrying foreign influence and his country's abdication of traditional Japanese values. Afterward, he committed ritual suicide. Mr. Morimura substitutes a critique of the Japanese artworld slavishly following international trends.

The most enigmatic, vulnerable and thus beautiful images are the "Actresses," modeled upon noted film stars or scenes. They are also self-portraits wherein Mr. Morimura is his most naked (sometimes literally), and the characteristic introspection exudes a searching pain.

Perhaps the greatest accomplishments of this body of work are its challenge to the ways humans construct social states -- rituals, standards of beauty and power, who's in and who's out -- and its confrontation of comfortable notions of time and space.

His re-representation of seemingly fixed imagery conveys approval to those similarly inclined to question rather than automatically accept, whether image or dictum.

More profound is the idea of the perpetually evasive image -- that rather than being dated and fixed in place, living and even inanimate matter exists within flickering frames of simultaneous truth and illusion, ultimately beyond eye of camera or of man.

A panel will be held in conjunction with the exhibition to discuss Mr. Morimura's work and implications at 4 p.m. Saturday. Participants will be Warhol Museum director Eric Shiner; Nicholas Chambers, museum curator of art and exhibition; Cindy Lisica, museum assistant archivist and adjunct professor of Chinese and Japanese visual culture, University of Pittsburgh; and Charles Exley, assistant professor of Japanese literature and film, University of Pittsburgh. The panel is co-presented with the National Consortium for Teaching About Asia and Pitt's Asian Studies Center, University Center for International Studies. Free with museum admission, but seating is limited and on a first-come, first-served basis.

The exhibition continues at 117 Sandusky St., North Side, through Jan. 12. Hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday and until 10 p.m. Friday. Admission is $20; students and children ages 3-18, $10; half-price 5-10 p.m. Friday. Information: 412-237-8300 or www.warhol.org to access the exhibition micro-site.

CI Culture Club

The Thursday Culture Club at Carnegie Museum of Art will be a one-time screening of 2013 International artist Yael Bartana's recent film trilogy "... And Europe Will Be Stunned" about the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland. A happy hour will be held from 5:30 to 6:30 near the artist's installation, followed by the films and conversation from 7 to 8:30 p.m. in the museum theater. The Israeli artist and Carnegie International co-curator Daniel Baumann will discuss the films afterward. The $10 admission includes one drink ticket. Information: 412-622-3131 or www.cmoa.org.


Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: mthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1925.

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