Combining traditional Japanese woodblock prints with American street art, Gajin Fujita leads viewers into a hybridity of Japanese and American visual culture. Where graffiti artists have often been overlooked by art historians, this curated show of some of Fujita’s wood panels have found their way into the upper room of the Hunter Museum of American Art. Not your traditional oil paintings, these works combine the Japanese tradition of wood block with a western contemporary pop style. Using markers, spray paint over precious metal-leafed backdrops, Fujita’s works’ larger than life scale brings viewers into a clash between eastern and western cultures, employing a delinquent style of art making.
Fujita begins the work with collaboration, laying down gold, silver, and platinum leaf with the help of friends and then “tagging” them with cultural references and catchphrases. He invites and encourages participation in the initial stages, and only begins to guide the making process with the multilayered printing techniques he uses overtop the bottom layer. His technique involves painstakingly-created stencils to place the main figures, details, and titles. The stencils allow for precision in the paint application and allow for a process that references Japanese woodblocking. The images are layered with some covered by a build-up of paint, while others remain in tact. The paintings are finished with a gold leafing on the edges and a final clear coat to seal in the layers of paint.
Japanese woodblock artists created brightly colored images using multiple blocks that are overlayed with bright colors and fit together to form a cohesive whole. Fujita specifically references the Ukiyo-e prints from the Edo period in Japanese history. Ukiyo-e can be translated most closely to “pictures of the floating world” and were made predominantly in the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries. The prints make use of themes such as transitory beauty through the portrayal of fleeting, modern spectacle. These prints most often feature themes of beautiful women, sumo-wrestlers, and kabuki actors along with folklore and history scenes. Fujita makes use of these same subjects, however displaces them in the Los Angeles landscape and surrounds them with graffiti. The use of text is important to these images, working not to tell but to give stylistic context to the forms.
Fujita’s Clash of the Titans combines these formal elements to communicate the ongoing cultural encounters between eastern and western perspectives. The panel features a dragon and tiger about to strike. While both animals are revered in traditional Asian culture, the tiger tended to represent the West as a creature of the earthly realm, while the dragon, emerging from imagination and mythology, was associated with the East. The clash can be read as a standoff between Fujita’s own Japanese-American heritage, but it can also be read as a fight between east and west coast graffiti artists and their differing styles of art.
Another interesting choice within Fujita’s work is his portrayal of female characters. Where women in Ukiyo-e Japanese woodprints were geishas and painted for their beauty only, Fujita’s warrior women are powerful while still referencing their geisha heritage in hairstyle and clothing. These powerful women are no longer relegated to mere entertainment for men or as stand-ins for abstract nationalism, but serve to protect and defend honor like their male counterparts.
Fujita’s work will be on display through June 7 at the Hunter Museum of American Art. First Sunday of the month is coming up this week, where the special exhibit will be open free of charge.