5 Questions with Tomoo Gokita

I’ve been asking around about Tomoo Gokita, and I’ve heard various things: he likes beer and boobs and wrestling. He used to do drawings, but now he paints. He’s a hero among the many underground scenes in Tokyo—a fact that was later verified by the crowd attending his opening at Taka Ishii Gallery, in the heart of Tokyo’s international clubbing district, Roppongi, on Saturday night, some sporting neck tattoos, others silk suits.

Queen with a Fake Beard, 2017 Acrylic gouache on canvas 162 x 130 cm © Tomoo Gokita / Courtesy of Taka Ishii Gallery Tokyo

His love of drawing, collage and the various textures of a brush come across in his new paintings just as much as his love of boobs, girl-on-girl action and macho sports. In a single work, he can apply the brush in unusual ways, layering gouache against acrylic, or leaving contrasting glimpses of bare canvas next to white paint. The central work of the show, Commemorative Photo, is the most deranged, both in terms of the technique and subject matter. Who are this disturbing trio, and what do they want? The weird dissonance of their union and their body parts deformed by Gokita’s strokes, stay with you long after you leave the gallery.

I went up to congratulate the artist who was in attendance on Saturday night, at his third solo show at the gallery. He’s now based back in Tokyo, though recognition in his homeland only came relatively recently. I asked why he had decided to paint flowers for this show, they seemed at odds with the defaced portrait figures. “Face, people, face, boring. Flowers. No plan!” He told me, smilingly. Could it also be a nod to the Japanese art audience, who might like to buy something more traditional? He concedes it might just be. I’ll forgive him though, he did make all of these paintings in just one month.

But rewinding back a few days, before the show, called Holy Cow, was installed, I sent Gokita five questions. His replies tell you everything you need to know about this quixotic and subversive artist.

Plant like a Spirit Ghost, 2017 Acrylic gouache on canvas 100 x 100 cm © Tomoo Gokita / Courtesy of Taka Ishii Gallery Tokyo

This is your first show at Taka Ishii Gallery in five years. In between, you also had a retrospective show in Japan. Do you find the reception to your work in Japan to be as warm as it has been abroad, mainly in the US? What does the Japanese art world make of you?

To be honest I think that the reception is better abroad, in particular in the US rather than in Japan. People in Japan seem to have this strong impression of me as a “person of the subcultural realm” for engaging in numerous graphic design and illustration projects in the past. So in a sense, I don’t really know what the Japanese art world makes of me. There are even some people who are taken by surprise and ask me, “Since when have you been a painter?”

Well, it keeps you young I guess! You’re also going back to some of the ideas you reflected on earlier in your career, in this new body of work–can you tell me more about that?

I had become bored of depicting abstract faces, so I thought perhaps it was about time I took to “drawing the human face normally” as seems to be the trend in drawing these days, albeit on canvas. I think it is also related to the fact that I had become slightly fed up of being constantly bombarded with the same question from numerous people within the past several years asking me, “Why don’t you paint faces?”

Tomoo Gokita, Commemorative Photo, 2017, acrylic gouache on canvas, 194.3 x 259 cm © the artist / Courtesy of Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo


You work a lot with found imagery, from record sleeves to wrestling posters. What kind of images have you been using for this new exhibition, Holy Cow

There’s no change at all in my basic approach (laughs). While producing the works for this exhibition I had again found myself looking at nasty porn magazines and old professional wrestling magazines. Wait, I guess the fact that there are more “paintings like plants” in this exhibition could be considered a small change.

You’ve also chosen to stick firmly to a monochromatic palette. What is it that you like about this aesthetic? It’s been said that you use it because Americans like that palette.

It’s not really an aesthetic decision at all. I just can’t be bothered to work with colours. My material costs are cheaper that way too!

That’s very logical. The titles of your works add mystery and humour to the anonymous figures in the new paintings, too. Can you tell me more about the work, Queen with a Fake Beard?

I came across a photograph of a woman wearing a fake beard in a 1960s porn magazine that a friend gave me. The photograph had been so amazing that I felt the fierce urge to make it into a painting. So basically for the work I simply copied this image. You see, I am very fond of copying things.

‘Holy Cow’ runs until 15 April at Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo. takaishiigallery.com

Tomoo Gokita, “Holy Cow”, installation view at Taka Ishii Gallery Tokyo, Mar 18 – Apr 15, 2017 Courtesy of Taka Ishii Gallery / Photo: Kenji Takahashi
Tomoo Gokita, “Holy Cow”, installation view at Taka Ishii Gallery Tokyo, Mar 18 – Apr 15, 2017 Courtesy of Taka Ishii Gallery / Photo: Kenji Takahashi
Tomoo Gokita, “Holy Cow”, installation view at Taka Ishii Gallery Tokyo, Mar 18 – Apr 15, 2017 Courtesy of Taka Ishii Gallery / Photo: Kenji Takahashi