An Essay by Marcia Morse
Using the genres of painting, sculpture and installation, Michael Takemoto has engaged in an ongoing critique of contemporary politics-–those that pertain to the art world, and those that pertain to the world at large. He has consistently cultivated a perspective informed by insider knowledge, while also choosing to position himself at the margins of visual discourse. The resulting tension between a canny street-smart attitude and a faux-naive pictorial style makes for a definite sense of double-take; there is more than initially meets the eye, and it is worth waiting for second and subsequent waves of insight.
Takemoto had an early childhood interest in comic books and superhero culture; in his teens, painting like Frank Frazetta was a major goal. Then, he notes, “I discovered the underground comics culture of artists like Robert Crumb; it changed my point of view about what comics were and what art could be...it definitely influenced me as far as developing an irreverence for accepted norms.”
After receiving his BFA in drawing and painting at the University of Hawai`i at Manoa in 1980, he entered graduate school at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, appreciating the shift to a more liberal environment. He also became aware of the work of Chicago Imagists including Ed Paschke and Jim Nutt, recognizing in them a kind of kindred idiosyncratic spirit. Though Takemoto pursued his studies in drawing and painting, his MFA exhibition in 1984 consisted of sculptural assemblages that signaled the beginning of a multi-faceted, multi-media approach to art-making.
His Post-Nuclear Artifacts pointed ironically to the hegemony of postmodernism while also establishing what would become a dominant strategy in his work–-the use of materials that were devalued, invoking both an environmentalist’s attitude about recycling, and problematizing the conventional hierarchy of media. In these assemblages, Takemoto used styrofoam packing, egg crates, and other disposable materials that, once joined in wall-works or free-standing pieces, were sprayed and spattered with rustoleum paint, simulating machinery that floated in time between the archeological and the science-fictional.
Takemoto considering remaining on the mainland, knowing that opportunities for exhibitions and work were much better. Yet he was also wary of surviving more winters, and realized that his work was probably not going to be immediately commercially viable. Accepting this, he returned to the islands, where he worked as a truck driver and at other jobs for a number of years before finding his current teaching position at Maui Community College. He has also worked with the Department of Education through the Artists in the Schools Program, and has recently completed a mural project at Kihei Elementary School. Takemoto has come to appreciate the general lifestyle on Maui–-laid back, slower paced, providing an environment in which his work and his family can flourish.
In 1984, Takemoto began a new series of Plexiglyphs, paintings derived from Hawaiian petroglyphs on the underside of sheets of plexiglas. Breaking away from traditional forms, he began to develop his own images, including a diptych of a spear-carrying man and his victim, the first of what would become an ongoing concern with the theme of man’s inhumanity to man. During this same period, he also produced a number of sculptural relief works, Primordial Images from the Postmodern Epic, recycling old frames from the shop where he worked, using them to contain mixed-media reliefs with a deliberately limited palette, in contrast to the exuberant polychrome of the Plexiglyphs.
A breakthrough occurred when Takemoto acquired a plastic mold and was able to cast multiples of the human face; this led to a series of relief and freestanding totemic works that eerily returned the viewer’s gaze. Coated with Fleckstone, a faux-marble paint, these works once again participated in the illusionary practices that characterized the artist’s work.
Shifting gears once again, Takemoto developed the M.A.D. (Modular-Abstract-Decorative) Frescoes, paying curious homage to both the Mexican muralists and artists of the Renaissance. He did not, however, use traditional fresco technique, but a low-tech adaptation, painting on damp sections of plaster cast in triangles and squares. In these, an abstract geometric pattern was painted in intense primary colors across several sections of plaster, which could then be rearranged and deployed spatially at random.
In the early 1990s, shifting away from these more purely formal, albeit playful, interests, Takemoto began his series of Third World Portraits, engaging more directly in political subjects. He began with those whom he considered notorious or famous, and moved on to others involved in human rights, or minority interests; the series ranged from Mother Teresa to Saddam Hussein. Each portrait was painted on an 8-inch circle of cast plaster, once again using the pseudo-fresco technique. He ultimately completed 107 of these portraits that, like the M.A.D. frescoes, could be installed in various configurations.
In a wonderfully wacky send-up of mid-20th century abstraction, Takemoto subsequently turned to a series entitled Microbiological Expressionism, exploring the notions of field and gestural painting using the strange shapes of micro-organisms laid out on blue plastic drop cloths. He was fascinated with the quoted statistic that there are more such organisms on a single human body than there are people on earth.
In a similar state of fascination with the arcane and speculative, Takemoto also developed the UFO Series, playing out a memory he had as a teenager working in the pineapple fields on the night shift, seeing what he thought was an alien spacecraft. The series was painted on a cache of kapa he found at a swap meet; he was both dismayed and ultimately delighted that the works were received with great delectation by a variety of insects–nature’s art critics. In selecting materials for his paintings and sculptural works, Takemoto has responded both to a sense of basic pragmatism, and to that sense of irreverence for convention that has driven much of his work.
Most recently, Takemoto has been engaged with a series of large paintings, done on unstretched canvas drop-cloths that have taken up, once again, the theme of man’s inhumanity to man. Each monochrome image is based on specific art-historical references, from Mantegna’s Saint Sebastian to an anonymous photograph from Time magazine of a southern lynching, from Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith and Holofernes to Webber’s Death of Captain Cook.
In tandem with the paintings and sculptural assemblages, Takemoto has produced several installations that also probe the social dimensions of art-making, and the protocols of visual representation and art-viewing. He appreciates the edgy, speculative nature of this kind of work, not always knowing how they will turn out, nor how they will be received. These works have ranged from the more generally interactive, like Book Sale and Break Room, to Paint Your Own Masterpiece and Chess Game: New York School vs. L’Ecole de Paris. For his current installation, Takemoto began, as he often does, with small works in one of his sketchbooks, which serve as an important databank of ideas. From small clustered flecks of ink on paper emerge the grainy visages of a contemporary pantheon of tyrants–-Hussein, Bin Laden, Kim Jong Il. Translated to wall-scale works, the marks of ink are replaced by plastic replicas of one of nature’s most enduring inhabitants: the cockroach. With a typical admixture of humor and passion, Takemoto is once again in our face, asking us to look again, and think twice.
Born in 1957 in
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