The LA-based Hawaiian artist, Shingo Yamazaki’s work is a richly layered exploration of relocation and dislocation, cultural hybridity and home. As a second generation Japanese and Korean American, raised in Hawai‘i, Yamazaki’s vivid paintings track his cross-cultural identity. While the confidence of his colour palate might imply a settled conclusion of his cultural navigation, it is disrupted in another sweep of paint. As he casts transparencies across otherwise completed works, its subjects evade any determinate identity, as Yamazaki assures the viewer it is “perfectly valid to occupy the in-between”.
We spoke to Yamazaki shortly after he concluded his first solo exhibition, Any Kind at the Sow and Tailor Gallery in LA at the end of 2023. He expands on what home means to him within the BIPOC diaspora, how this is conveyed throughout his work, and his plans to continue tracking the ever-evolving notion of home in his future work.
You grew up in Hawaiʻi  and moved to LA in 2018. How did this move influence the direction of your art?
Living in Hawaiʻi was a significant chapter in my life, but the decision to move to Los Angeles in 2018 had a huge impact on the trajectory of my work. This move offered me a chance for deep self-reflection, allowing me to delve into the multitude of cultural influences shaping my identity. In Los Angeles, I found myself grappling with and exploring the ever-evolving concept of home, constantly questioning the interplay between various locations and the act of code-switching between different communities. This curiosity became a crucial aspect of my artistic practice.
What is the art scene like in LA as an emerging artist? How easy have you found it to navigate?
The art scene has been and still is a huge culture shock to me. The city holds numerous art openings on a weekly basis, a pace I wasn't accustomed to in Hawaiʻi. This allowed more exposure to new and exciting artwork, that I formerly did not have access to. Seeing the work and meeting the artists that I’ve admired has been a joy and a privilege.
I was pleasantly surprised by how welcoming the art scene is here in Los Angeles. I honestly did not know what to expect when I first got here. Luckily I had a studio space during the Covid-19 lockdown, which turned out to be a blessing during a tumultuous time. It provided me with the environment to incubate and build a substantial body of work. As I shared my art and connected with people, I discovered avenues for networking and a sense of community in my new environment.
You recently showed your paintings at, I believe, your first solo exhibition titled Any Kind at Sow & Tailor Gallery LA – congratulations! Did you have any feelings or additional nerves going into this exhibition that you have not experienced at group exhibitions?
Thank you! Stepping into my first solo exhibition, Any Kind at Sow & Tailor Gallery in LA, was definitely a mix of excitement and nerves – a lot of emotions. There's a unique set of feelings and responsibilities that come with a solo show that I hadn't quite experienced in group exhibitions.
I felt this heightened sense of responsibility to deliver a show that would leave a lasting impact. The goal was to create an exhibition and a thoughtful space that could spark reflection and dialogue around themes of identity, cultural hybridity, and the concept of home. Unlike group shows, where there's a predefined theme that ties everything together, this time, I had complete control over the viewer's experience.
I'm also extremely grateful to the amazing people at Sow & Tailor for allowing this opportunity to happen and having my debut take place in such a beautiful space. I was particularly mindful of how the audience would navigate through the space and made sure the installations added an extra layer of insight into the paintings.
This collection was described as a “reflection of the ever-shifting landscape of personal and collective recollection.” Now the exhibition has ended, has your own interpretation of these paintings and their narratives changed at all after revealing them to the public and allowing for that collective interaction with an audience?
The feedback and dialogue from the exhibition were truly invaluable. Engaging with viewers provided unique insights and fascinating discussions on how different aspects of the work resonated with individuals. The narratives, influenced by a blend of cultural elements, sparked a diverse range of stories. The exhibition became a platform for shared experiences, underscoring the importance of fostering conversations around cultural hybridity and in-betweenness within the BIPOC diaspora. These interactions motivated me to refine my approach, contributing to the ongoing evolution and connection within my work. I aim to continue creating dialogue through art, and I'm genuinely appreciative of the insights gained through the audience.
You mention being inspired by the national specificities of your transcultural heritage, which figure in your paintings amongst a mixture of cultural signifiers. Are there any specific cultural references you have been particularly inspired by recently?
Exploring the nuances of my transcultural heritage, my paintings merge national specificities and cultural signifiers within domestic spaces. Contemplating the history of objects and traditions, I'm intrigued by how they evolve through movement and migration, influencing the transformative identity of the spaces they inhabit.
Recently, my attention has been drawn to specific references that align with the multi-cultural themes I explore. Textiles, particularly the iconic Aloha shirt, feature prominently in my compositions, acting as a method of connecting history with identity. There is so much rich history behind the patterns, fabrics, as well as the popularisation of this shirt that I find there’s a lot to unpack and unveil into my work.
I’ve also been interested in ceramic vessels, typically forms that originate from Japanese and Korean cultures. Additionally, my family's tradition of Ikebana expresses sentiment and life's delicacy, using flora symbolising a connection that allows diverse flowers to coexist harmoniously. These Japanese and Korean motifs are explicitly connected to individuals in the diaspora, characterised by a perpetual struggle with in-betweenness. My focus lies in communicating a void in experience and generational knowledge, intrinsic to diasporic culture, where a constant interplay of erasure and evolution unfolds.
Most of your paintings are deeply intimate portraits of people in their familiar spaces. Are all these portraits partly imagined by you alone in the studio, or do you ever paint from life? Why or why not?
My work involves imagery from a combination of imagination and photographs. I draw inspiration from old family albums, uncovering references that serve as the foundation for reimagined and recreated spaces within my work. Intentionally shot imagery, featuring myself, friends, and family, is also used. While I do paint from life, it usually involves objects rather than figurative elements. Unfortunately, it's challenging to paint people live, especially since most of my family members are in Hawaiʻi.
Do you paint with any narrative or story in mind that is specific to each painting?
I often have certain themes and narratives in mind for each painting. There are numerous intersections of story, place, and history that unfold and conflate within these imagined spaces. My work is often inspired by conversations between the past and present, driven by inquiry of how I navigated certain dialogues, while understanding how it is interconnected with the now.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but your self-portrait seems to feature in some of your paintings. How do you understand your role as an artist in relation to the art itself and the audience?
While I do feature myself in some paintings, the act of self-portraiture, in the traditional sense, isn't the primary focus. It's more about a collective identity shared and defined by the spaces that I and past generations have occupied. The paintings serve as a survey of time, memory, and place, explored through a combination of conversation and introspection. My role as an artist is to create spaces where multiple, possibly unknown, versions of oneself can coexist harmoniously, inviting the audience to partake in this experience. My practice seeks to engage viewers in a discourse on the universal struggles of cultural hybridity, trauma, and erasure. I want viewers to understand that it's perfectly valid to occupy the in-between.
Why are you drawn to painting as a medium? Have you or do you plan to experiment with any other forms?
I've experimented with various mediums, exploring different methods to communicate concepts, but I've consistently returned to painting. There's a specific quality and connection to paint as a material and language that I find particularly compelling. I enjoy the immediacy of applying the materiality of paint, forming imagery through this repeated process of adding material to surface. It has been the most resonating method for me to reflect on my own relation to the world, and I continually find this something I can obsess over.
For my recent exhibition at Sow & Tailor, I incorporated installation artwork to supplement and build cohesion. The addition of interactive and physical elements is a direction I plan to explore further in my exhibitions. Additionally, my interest in ceramics as a medium stems from my involvement in making ceramic work during my undergraduate years. Exploring the possibilities of ceramic sculptures and vessels provides another avenue to tie concepts to physical form.
You paint with such rich and vivid colours, could you reflect a little bit on your use of colour?
Growing up in Hawaiʻi immersed me in vibrant colours stemming from the islands’ lush flora and natural environment. The colourful gradients in my paintings represent a state of flux, drawing inspiration from the brilliant flora of my hometown. Specific colour combinations are chosen by pulling from various flowers, evoking nostalgia and tapping into specific memories associated with particular moments. I also derive a variety of colours from observing textiles, with many Aloha Shirts inspired by the brightly saturated hues of Hawaiʻi's landscape.
Your use of transparencies is particularly intriguing, how did this technique come to be a distinguishing feature of your paintings? Were you inspired by any artist in particular?
My approach to using transparencies evolved from past work centred around disrupting viewership of the figure, initially inspired by concepts related to memory and dementia. The intention was to challenge how we view paintings and the amount of information we recall and forget when drawing from memory. I incorporated painterly mark-making passes over a completed scene to reduce visibility, taking a risk by obscuring compositions that would typically have been deemed a complete painting. Through this process I question the concept of personhood, the construct of memory, and what influences and shapes how we self-identify.
As this exploration progressed, I started using these obstructions as household objects or flora, blending the figure and object simultaneously, obscuring the notion that the figure is the main focus of the composition. I realised that this method had a lot of potent dualities that aligned with themes I have been working with. Ideas of invisibility, erasure, in-betweenness, and otherness are all concepts that symbolically made sense. Interestingly, I didn't draw particular inspiration from another artist for this specific approach.
Your art invites viewers to engage in conversations about the essence of existence. Has your work invoked any revelations about the nature of your own existence?
Introspection through the act of painting has allowed me to confront the complexity of my roots. Being a 2nd generation Japanese and Korean American, coupled with my upbringing in Hawaiʻi, has significantly impacted how I self-identify. Taking the time to understand my position between different communities and grappling with the ambiguity of home has led to revelations in my work. The home acts as a collective source of identity and I invite viewers to participate in dialogues of everyday existence. It offers a transformative space for reflection and gives a shared experience where various facets of oneself coalesce.  This ongoing question and dialogue continue to shift and change as I make efforts to further understand my own realities and how I cope and reconcile with them.
Would you agree your paintings seek to redefine the notion of home as not necessarily anywhere spatially located, but a term in constant flux, invoked by different experiences, relationships and objects? If so, what is one element of your own life that makes you feel a sense of home or belonging?
Absolutely. My work explores the fluidity of the concept of home. It's not about being confined to a specific place; home, for me, is this ever-changing entity. It shifts with experiences, the relationships I hold, the symbolic resonance of cherished objects, and spaces I’ve occupied. I like to think that there isn't just one home, and that there are multiple places where you find comfort, build connections, and create your own personal history. The home is an ongoing search, and as a multicultural visual artist, I recognise my place can shift and wander as a nomadic part of the diaspora. One aspect that consistently evokes a sense of home is familiarity and nostalgia—a place to which I can return, whether it’s physical or imagined. Wherever I am, the sense of belonging to a place, the feeling of it being home, doesn't cease to exist; it transforms and expands based on decisions and circumstances.
What are you working on currently? What kind of themes can we expect in some of your next pieces?
I’ve been interested in the world of games popularised through cultural exchange in Hawaiʻi and the mainland USA. Some examples are Hanafuda or Hwatu cards, Pogs, or Kendama—objects introduced through migration that contribute to the diversity within the local community. I frequently parallel this with my family lineage, comparable to the history of their assimilation and also my own personal migration from Hawaiʻi  to Los Angeles. I’ve started on these concepts as a new body of work, while still working within the same vein of themes revolving around transcultural heritage, identity, and home.
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