The Rock God Still Sleeps
By Patrick Tsai
It’s hard to write objectively about the painter Yosuke Yamaguchi because he’s my best friend… or maybe it’s actually easier to write about him because I know him better than most people.
• He looks like Jesus sporting a nice mane of black wavy hair and a thick beard and moustache.
• He is the messiest eater that I know, often having particles of food stuck somewhere either between his teeth or in his beard.
• He is obsessed with the J-Pop Idol group, Perfume, composed of three girls, each of whom is specifically chosen to appeal to the ranges of various people’s tastes. There’s the sexy/slutty one, the cute one, and the friendly mediocre one. Yosuke likes the mediocre one.
• He is the only person I know who started skateboarding over the age of 30. When he falls (which he does often), he gets right back up, bleeding with pebbles in his cuts with a goofy, child-like grin.
• He is the easiest person to talk to because he lacks any pretension.
• Finally, he is one of the greatest up-and-coming painters in Tokyo. His subdued, yet playful paintings are reminiscent of Daniel Johnston’s music without the mental disorder. Like Johnston’s music, his art is filled with images of his own fantasy worlds, which are epic in imagination but at the same time recognizably down to earth.
Today Yosuke is already waiting for me outside when I arrive at his local train station. He isn’t carrying his hand-painted skateboard because it is snowing, which is rare in Tokyo. I take that as a good sign. We decide to go to Bamiyan, the Chinese family restaurant version of Denny’s. It is completely empty because no one eats Chinese at 10:00 am. To warm up, I make a cup of pu-erh tea, and put some milk and sugar in. Fascinated by my concoction, Yosuke asks if he can try it. After a sip, he makes a sour face and says, “It’s not my cup of tea,” then he makes his own. We sit down and begin the interview.
I decide to ask my hardest question first:
“Please describe your world.”
“What?!? My world…? In English?!?”, Yosuke asks flabbergasted.
He tries to come up with something, but it just sounds like mumbling, which is my fault - I should have given him a warm-up question. I apologize. I decide to ask my easiest one instead.
“What’s your favorite color?”
“Dark blue. I don’t like red,” he says, beginning to relax. “I like smoky colors. I don’t really wash my palettes, so I just mix the colors – the old ones with the new.”
Yosuke’s work is subtle and the colors he uses are too. His watercolor paintings end up looking dark, but not in a way that it is scary or even sad. At first, the worlds that he creates might appear foreboding and the characters in them look fucking depressed, but we – the viewer- can eventually see the subtle humor of the situation.. He’s a lot like the filmmaker Wes Anderson. Both artists let us watch their characters’ misery from afar. We might not laugh aloud for the fear of looking mean, but we can’t help but chuckle under our breath because it is – in the end- still really funny.
Once, I was asked to write a synopsis of Yosuke’s last zine, which was released about six months ago. This is what I wrote:
“The word “apathy” means "not caring” or “uninterested". When I look at the painter Yosuke Yamaguchi’s new book entitled Yakoku, or The Dark Country, it seems like everyone is feeling that way. Even when they come across some magical creature like a sphinx, it doesn't seem to be of any more interest to the person than a piece of toast…”
So now, sitting at Bamiyan, I can’t help but ask him this:
“Why do you characters always look so depressed?”
“Actually I think that they are more in a neutral position rather than in a state of depression,” he replies, “I think it just depends on the people who sees my work.”
I wonder… is that an insult for me?
Yosuke then shows me the mock-up of his book he made for his upcoming exhibition, Sleep On, Beloved at Shinjuku Ganko Gallery. His central piece for the book as well as his show is an enormous painting of a slumbering god made of stone hooked up to a machine by wires. Like his last series, Yakoku, this one is mostly filled with strange scenes from another world, dimension, or space-time continuum (I’m not really sure which) anchored down with bits and pieces from our own reality. While he explains his story about a tangible god, mad scientists, and the end of the world, it reminds me a lot of the T.V. show, Lost, which he has sadly never seen.
“The title Sleep on, Beloved is from a song by Bach,” he says. “Recently when I was rummaging through my parent’s house, looking for materials that I could reuse for my exhibition, I discovered it in a piano book full of Christmas songs. At first, I chose the title for its obvious connection to my main painting, but later I discovered that the song was coincidentally about baby Jesus. It was a lullaby from his mother singing to him about how when he wakes up, he will do good things for people, but for now, sleep on.
“Originally when I was painting it though, I was thinking about the Hindu God, Vishnu. I read somewhere about how when he sleeps, he is dreaming the universe; and when he finally wakes up, the world comes to an end. When he shuts his eyes again, the world begins anew, and so on. I thought that it would be fun if there was a god like this, and that his people, who wanted to continue living, made a machine to keep him asleep.”
Later I ask him about why his paintings tend to have musical references in them – be they instruments or famous musicians like David Bowie or David Byrne…. He answers that music heavily influenced him heavily in his young life. Record jackets intrigued him. Peter Saville’s design for Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures album, which used a diagram of the first pulsar ever discovered, left the biggest impression on him in his formative years. Referring to the Unknown Pleasures cover, he says, “You won’t know what it is at first, so you begin to wonder what the hell it’s all about. That really influenced me then and still does today.”
“The paintings of Edward Hopper also had a big affect on me,” he continues. “They look really normal at first, but eventually you begin to feel that there is something wrong with his paintings, and, most importantly, you will never know what that is. I believe that he was an influence on David Lynch as well. Like the parts in Lynch’s films where there is discordant noise or the sequences that don’t pertain to the main storyline…. the kind of atmosphere where something is about to happen… That atmosphere is really important for me and especially for my work. I am not interested in what will happen, but only about what’s going on directly before that - before the moment when everything is revealed because once the audience knows, there is no need for them to think or imagine anymore. If you can capture that moment before the scene’s main event, the story can go off in any direction…. From there, it’s up to the viewer’s imagination. It would be different for everyone.”
I then ask him about his childhood. He tells me that he mostly grew up in Saitama, but spent three years living in England with his family from the age of seven. His father, an airplane engineer, had to relocate to the English countryside for work. I ask him if he had a difficult time adapting to life in a foreign country.
“No,” he says. “I was good at football, so I had many friends. They would also come over to my house to play Nintendo all the time. That’s why my eyes are so bad now.”
“Did you do anything creative back then?” I ask.
“Sewing- I was making stuffed animals like bats and moles too. I don’t know why. I was also drawing a lot. I was really inspired, like every other Japanese kid, by those Jump Comics like Kinniku Man (Muscle Man) and animation like Gundam, so I was drawing all the time.”
Yosuke eventually moved back to Tokyo, became interested in music in high school, and then in university, studied law- which left me puzzled.
“Yes, I wasn’t thinking much back then,” he says in response to my question about that. “I kind of wanted to study politics, so that I could get to know all the things in the world. It was really that vague,” he laughs. “It’s the Japanese education…. Go to high school, go to a good university, and then go to a good company. I was on that track. I wasn’t really conscious about anything at that time.”
“So when did you become ‘conscious?'" I ask.
“I think it was when I got into music. I kept looking at those really cool record jackets, so one day I finally I decided to make some of my own.”
Now, as an adult, Yosuke does graphic design for a living. Actually maybe I shouldn’t use the words, “ for a living,” because he – like most artists in Tokyo- can barely survive with what he is earning. To put it shortly, my friend is poor. He is unbelievably talented, but he is also too kind and shy to haggle about money with his clients. He believes too much in the purity of his art, which is why he is a great artist, but also a bad businessman.
Or, maybe it’s just because he has only been working as a freelance designer for 2 years. Before that he worked at an assortment of companies. One was an advertising company, where he worked long, unnecessary Japanese hours doing nothing of importance - feeling neither stimulated nor fulfilled. He quit this company because it left him seriously ill from overwork. At his next job, where he finally got to do some design work, he realized that the images he had to use weren’t very good, and that maybe he could do better, so he decided to take his first painting class. That was four years ago.
Now he is on his own. His design work combines his own paintings and sometimes his own handmade fonts, which gives him his own signature style. You would recognize a music flier or poster by him if you saw it somewhere; and you would take one with you and hold on to it, probably for a long time. His recent clients are growing in number and by name. Last year, some of them have included So-en magazine, Beams, as well as the legendary experimental electronic musician, Yann Tomita, for his show at the Hara Museum.
But for now, he’s still poor.
A few weeks ago when we were hanging out, he informed me about how he was terribly lovesick. He was finally interested in a girl for the first time in a long while. This is the conversation that ensued:
“She is great,” he says, “but she is still in love with her ex-boyfriend.”
“I’ve met him before….”
“What’s he like?”
“He works for a really famous design company. He is really tall, handsome, and….”
“And what?” I ask.
“He has an Ipad.”
Fortunately it’s not the end of the world because the Rock God still sleeps.
Actually it is still just the beginning. I’ve seen Yosuke’s new work in person today, which undoubtedly is his best. He has risen the stakes with over 20 paintings, which are all so quiet but yet so powerful. This is like the fun part of the movie where you know something is going to happen. I believe that with his upcoming exhibition, he will make the money, get the clients and quite possibly, the girl.
Yosuke Yamaguchi's Website