Project Series 27: Kaz Oshiro
Kaz Oshiro transforms paint and canvas into domestic and utilitarian objects that blur the boundaries between painting and sculpture, illusion and function. They appear to be exact replicas of appliances, cabinetry, or electronics, but are painstakingly made with a painter’s traditional tools of oil and canvas, supplemented with bondo, a material car refinishers commonly use. Playing with artifice and illusion, Oshiro presents a meticulous three-dimensional reality on a two-dimensional surface, making clear the underlying structure of the illusion by revealing the stretcher-bar and canvas of the painting.
Oshiro’s hybrid objects deconstruct the traditions and heritage of modern art—in particular, painting and pop art—and confront the illusions and myths of popular culture here, in Southern California. With a vivid pop sensibility, Oshiro’s seemingly mundane objects reference the history of late twentieth-century art—Minimalist sculpture, Pop Art, Conceptual Art, and California Finish Fetish—through the stuff of popular culture—music, furniture design and fabrication, and car culture.
In earlier work—replications of Marshall and Peavey amplifiers, dorm refrigerators, microwave ovens, and trash cans ornamented with stickers and stains—Oshiro focused on music and popular culture, where his everyday objects told stories of specific sub-cultures in the music and art worlds, through combinations of appliance and adornment, His newer work—replications of wall cabinets, a full-scale kitchen, and, here, washers and dryers—engages issues of domesticity, design, architecture, and their relationships to the commodities of popular culture and private life.
Kaz Oshiro’s exhibition is the twenty-seventh in the Pomona College Museum of Art’s Project Series, an ongoing program of focused exhibitions that brings to the Pomona College campus art that is experimental and that introduces new forms, techniques, or concepts.
Kaz Oshiro’s Magic Deceit
By Michael Duncan
“The connoisseurs of the future may be more sensitive than we are to the imaginative dimensions and overtones of the literal.” – Clement Greenberg, “Abstract and Representational,” Art Digest, November 1, 1954
Kaz Oshiro’s surprising re-creations of commonplace objects are trompe l’oeil mind-teasers that slyly extend and invert the esthetic end-game initiated by the ideas of Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol. Flawless illusions, they appear to be what they depict--amplifiers, kitchen cabinets, trash cans, washers and dryers--complete with evidence of wear: scuff marks, stains, scrapes, stickers. As bland objects from the bottom of the consumer chain, they seem unlikely inhabitants of a museum or gallery.
All are non-collectables; they are slightly worn containers for things, receptacles of rock music, garbage, dirty laundry, plates, and mugs. Without aura or singularity, they seem too ordinary to consider as pathetic or abject; they have none of the appeal of Mike Kelley’s stuffed animals or Jim Shaw’s thrift store paintings. As presumably found objects, they don’t have the romantic patinas of rust or age. A glance at a wall label or checklist, however, changes everything – along with a look at their backsides. Oshiro’s works are composed of acrylic paint on canvas, with accessory details molded in bondo, the substance used to repair car bodies. Beautifully crafted props, they are usually installed so that viewers can discover the backstage artifice of canvas and stretcher bars.
Oshiro’s painstaking replications endow seemingly empty emblems of consumer culture with meaning. Growing up in Okinawa, Oshiro was bred on a hearty mix of American and Japanese pop cultures. His teenage enthusiasm for punk and new wave music and involvement as a young adult with pop collectibles eventually led to disillusion with the commodity-controlled world of fashions and trends. While in art school at California State University, Los Angeles, Oshiro became intrigued by the Photorealist paintings of Daniel Douke, particularly his masterfully convincing painted replications of paper bags and various forms of metal. Oshiro became interested in making free-standing objects using Douke’s illusionist techniques.
Like a good magic act, Oshiro’s works inspire a curiosity that leads to insecurity. We don’t really like knowing that our senses are fallible. Although we admire a good magician, we want to understand how we were tricked. To examine Oshiro’s works is to understand that things are not always what they seem. But his objects offer more than just slight-of-hand. The works take on new significance after a viewer sees their canvas and stretcher bar supports and examines their surfaces closely for indications of the artist’s touch. There are real signs of life within the masquerade.
Oshiro’s painstakingly accurate models of unremarkable objects neatly extend a long established art history of illusionism. Since ancient times, artists have created trompe l’oeil paintings of faux windows, desktops, cabinets, and vistas that have bemused viewers with their convincing 3-D effects. Renaissance artists painted full-scale frescos that used perspectival rendering seemingly to extend corridors or architecture and to emulate exterior views. Ostensibly real insects or plants carved from wood or cast from metal were often included in collections of curios or cabinets of wonder.
As early as the seventeenth century, artists depicted in convincing detail the stretcher bars and backside of a painting, jokingly toying with the most basic convention of two-dimensional art. Such pranks were more than simply stunts of virtuosic rendering. Paintings capable of deceiving the senses tweak the hegemony of visual reality, opening the doors to the illusory worlds of fiction and the imagination. In their survey of trompe l’oeil works in western culture, art historians Eckhard Hollmann and Jürgen Tesch point out, “Behind the entertaining surprise that a picture initially triggers often lies a deeper reflection on human shortcomings and the transience of objects. The observer is both entertained and disturbed, aware of how superficially and imprecisely he usually sees the world. To deceive the eye also means to open it.”
Around 1915, artist-trickster Marcel Duchamp cribbed the forms of a store-bought urinal, snow shovel, and bicycle wheel, claiming them as his own art. The greatness of the readymades stems not simply from Duchamp’s conceptual audacity in pronouncing common objects as art. He was able to see that these everyday things could serve as sleek, beautifully designed sculptures—formally resolved in the mode of Brancusi’s sculptures or African masks. Performing a kind of conceptual trompe l’oeil, Duchamp made his readymade art simply by titling the everyday objects.
In 1964 Andy Warhol extended Duchamp’s ideas by presenting replications of Brillo soap pad boxes as sculptures. In a variety of ways, Pop Art embraced the depiction of mass market goods, celebrating everyday life and the universality of consumerism. In his exact appropriation of the size and look of the boxes, Warhol challenged the distinctions usually made between art and non-art. In a sense, the full-scale copies of Brillo soap boxes cleansed art of its usual content, claiming even consumer goods as suitable subject matter.
Warhol’s Brillo boxes can also be seen to be joking commentaries on the simple geometric works just beginning to be made in the early sixties by Minimalist sculptors such as Donald Judd and Robert Morris. Like the crisply lined, regular forms of Judd’s cubes or Morris’s platforms, the Brillo boxes are simple rectangular solids, “scoured” of irregularity or organic shapes. But there is a crucial difference: the Warhol boxes have been silkscreened with product logos and a price tag. The philosophical purity and Zen-inflected presence of Minimalist sculpture is gleefully corrupted in the appropriations of Warhol’s Pop Art.
Playing off Warhol’s twist of the formal tropes of Minimalism, Oshiro has chosen to appropriate objects from everyday life whose shapes consist of simple geometric solids. Oshiro’s works are all variations on rectangular box-like forms that reference the unornamented look of Minimalist sculpture. In “Peavy Stack” (2003-04), the six components are arranged in a neat rectangular grid. Oshiro’s various kitchen cabinet works hang on the wall like Judd’s modular units. Oshiro’s trash bins feature bright monochrome faces that recall the fiberglass inserts in many Judd works. “Sony Bookshelf Speakers” (2003-04), a vertical row of six, evenly spaced, faux, wall-mounted speakers, is a direct parody of Judd’s stacks from the mid-sixties of rectangular, galvanized metal or stainless steel.
When Warhol declared in reference to his assembly line production of soup can and celebrity portrait paintings, “I want to be a machine,” he was placing himself in opposition to the spiritual and philosophical aspirations associated with art movements such as Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism. He challenged the uniqueness of painting through repeated use of silkscreens, creating dozens of variations on his best known images.
While also made in series, Oshiro’s works are far from assembly line productions. Their time-consuming facture invests them with a perversely positive value, one generated from Oshiro’s personal philosophy that “To survive, you better hate the thing you like and like the thing you hate.” Following this twisted logic, Oshiro re-creates low subject matter in the style of a movement whose ideals he mistrusts. Questioning the efficacy of art, his plain-spoken works are kitchen-sink dramas, finding a kind of poignancy and purity in mundane vessels for garbage, rock music, trash, and dirty laundry.
In addition to Pop, Photorealism, Minimalism, Appropriation, and trompe l’oeil painting, Oshiro also draws on the poetic associations of found-object assemblage in his meticulous re-creations of the objects’ marks of ownership. These indications of daily use humanize the works, hinting at everyday lives beyond art and the act of art-making. Oshiro provides only the scantiest details about the owners of these objects. Like evidence from an archeological site, the rock band stickers, food stains, and detergent spills might spark theories about early twenty-first century lifestyles and culture. Oshiro’s trompe l’oeil objects are implicit memento mori, quietly asserting the fallibility of our senses and the mortality of all things.