In New York there’s a young Japanese artist who paints with an almost digital-like collage technique he calls “cut and paste”. And not satisfied just with a canvas or a studio, Meguru Yamaguchi can now also be found painting on the streets of the city. PingMag visited his studio to ask him what it’s like to be a Japanese artist in the Big Apple.
You don’t paint directly onto the canvas but instead use a “cut and paste” technique. Why did you start painting like that?
When I first came to New York around five years ago I worked as an assistant to a Japanese artist. My boss then returned to Japan and let me borrow his studio for a while. I was told, though, not to get the floor dirty, so I put plastic sheets on the floor to paint.
After working like that for around a month I just couldn’t paint anything. Before my boss came back I took off the sheets, and when unpeeling the paint it kind of looked like a cool puzzle.
I use this type of industrial resin called epoxy that is used in badges. I pour a lot of this out on top of the plastic. Once it is then dry you can peel it off. [See photo above.] I then cut this out and paste it on. When the colors are running I consider the combination of colors and amounts. For example, if I wanted to make something red then I’d add in greens and blues that fit with that. I add the paints after deciding the base color.
I’ve been doing this for around five years now so I’ve gradually got the hang of it and can predict how it’s going to turn out. It’s not just making a surface randomly. Sometimes there the underside is really cool but you can’t decipher this. I don’t think there are any other people doing the exact same thing as me, but there a few doing things out there that are similar.
It feels like you have established this now as your personal style.
At first it was just an experiment. I wondered how I could put this onto a canvas and after about two years I could make something like a flower. Then I started painting people. It’s kind of like playing around with color so when I was doing the flowers it felt like training. I kept thinking that it would be cool if I could make this my own.
Then things took off from there and I tried using a mirror and making the resin shiny — building on what I’d done more and more. In my most recent work I’ve been putting the paint directly onto the canvas, and then using an electric file on it to make the base. Lately I haven’t been making mirror artworks so much, but the impression changes depending on the place where you see a piece that uses mirror, so I really want people to see it in the flesh.
Why have your subjects changed from flowers to portraits of people?
I’m very influenced by van Gogh. You find his pictures in elementary school textbooks, so even from a young age I was seeing them. In high school I saw his ‘Sunflowers’ for the first time, and was staggered by the massive difference between the painting and what a sunflower looks like in a photo. The paints are super rough, used like a tool.
Van Gogh and other painters at that time would paint the scenes they saw around them, like people nearby in a cafe. So for me, what are the scenes close to me? Well, then that’s my friends on social media, and the faces of the people I don’t know who pass through my digital feed. I have made this my theme in my own way. This seems to be the landscape or portrait painting of today. Of course, I get permission from the people I paint!
And if you paint the portrait of someone you know in social media as the contemporary version of a familiar landscape, that person might then use that as their avatar and so your painting is returned back into the contemporary landscape. This cycle is interesting.
Yes, it’s an infinite loop. [Laughs]
I’ve heard recently you have also been making music CD album covers. When you get asked to paint a picture by someone, it’s more like being a designer than an artist, isn’t it? Is the way you engage with it different?
Yes, totally. My work for CD covers has been good but in the past I’ve re-painted something around twenty times. In the end it turned out well but it was tough.
In the generation before mine there were street artists who did collaborations with Nike, so I’d like to carry on that custom. Japanese artists long ago disliked that kind of thing but I want to be involved with lots of kinds of people.
With the CD covers you are making small-scale work or even ones that are like data that you can re-paint. But then you are also making big artworks on street walls. There seems to be a difference even in the work where you are commissioned to do.
Yes, I was asked to paint a wall ad for an Lower East Side bike shop, Chari & Co NYC, and also there was a project to paint on a wall in the Bronx. For both I was told just to paint what I wanted, so it was easy.
Till now I’ve made a lot of small artworks, with the largest being this one in the middle [see image above]. I was thinking of the size of the canvas but the project in the Bronx is around 3 x 20 meters, so the scale is completely different. To see the whole thing you have to cross over to the other side of the road. Parts were peeling off, so right now I’m rethinking my next plan.
There are lots of artists plying their trade in New York. How are New York and Japan different for artists?
How other people see you. If you’re in Tokyo and still painting after you hit thirty, there is a sense that people think you’re just enjoying yourself. That’s how it was like for me. In New York they have an artist’s culture. Of course, there are a lot of artists in the city so you get all sorts — people doing it for real, plus others who just call themselves artists.
There is a different image of what the vocation of artist is. In Japan we tend to think it means people who hardly make enough money to buy food, and no doubt there are many actually like that. But in New York I don’t have all the distractions I might feel in Japan and can devote myself fully to my work. It is possible to think that I can just keep on painting for ages, it feels like I’m off on a quest to hone my skills.
Has there been any points at which you became newly aware of your Japanese-ness after coming to New York?
I got invited to a garden party through my current project in the Bronx. When I peeped in there were something like 200 African Americans in their twenties. The DJ was playing hip hop at deafening levels. And then there was me, the only Asian guy there, standing in the midst of this all for around an hour. At that time I thought there was no way I could enter this world.
I’m really influenced by New York street culture like graffiti and Keith Haring. But then I could really understand that street culture was something real, something born out of all this. As a Japanese, no matter how much I stood on my head, there was no way I could enter this world. I knew that at rock bottom I wasn’t like that. [Laughs] In this sense, I think I’m very Japanese.
So what can this Japanese me paint in New York? What’s the point of me painting something on a wall in the Bronx? I started to ask myself these kinds of questions. I was working on the painting and running over in my mind when local kid came by. “Wow, that’s cool!” he said. And with these words I stopped caring about the other stuff. New Yorkers are simple and straightforward when it comes to appraising something. That feels good.
What do you want to work on next?
Originally I was painting because I liked it and at the time when I thought I could make a living doing this, the design jobs came in and things started that I never even imagined. Then there was lots of business stuff and I got busy with things other than actually painting, so I wanted to ensure I don’t forget that first impulse I had.
And in the same way as I watched the back of the generation before me, I would like the younger generation to have that kind of life. I want to try painting really big things like whole buildings. Right now I’m painting a mural in the Bronx but I’m still painting within a square, so I’d love to be able to paint something bigger and beyond this frame, to really surprise people. Well, this is how I feel after starting to paint on a wall.
Yamaguchi is currently working on a mural for the Andrew Freedman Home in the Bronx.
Thank you, Meguru Yamaguchi.