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A Word on Yosh's Style:  The Artist as Activist

Commentary on "Yoshiro Sanbonmatsu:  A Political Retrospective (1991-2004)," Gallery of Social/Political Art, Community Church of Boston (by the artist's son, John Sanbonmatsu).

Working broadly in the modernist traditions of social satire, muralism, and “agitprop” aesthetics, Sanbonmatsu offers sardonic commentary on an array of concerns, from war and US interventionism in the Third World, to the plight of Native Americans, the AIDS crisis, racism, and human rights abuses in China and Indonesia.  Recurring elements and motifs include icons like the American flag, use of bas reliefs and burning to alter the texture of the canvas, incorporation of found objects, and use of cartoons, poems, and words. 


Sanbonmatsu’s style is unique, recognizable for its synthesis of Western intellectual and aesthetic traditions and what can only be called an Asian or Japanese sensibility.  Although openly hostile to many of the self-serving myths and conceits of Western aesthetics (indeed, many of his paintings acerbically note the relationship between European ideals of beauty and modern imperialism), Sanbonmatsu was influenced by such Western artists as Spanish caricaturist and portraitist Francisco Goya, Marxist playwright Bertold Brecht, the American social realists and documentarists (e.g., Jacob Ris and Walker Evans), the Cubists (see “From Isseis and Nisseis”), and even Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein (the attentive viewer will notice elements of Eisenstein’s “montage” in Sanbonmatsu’s “Gate of Heavenly Peace,” in which photo reproductions from the Tiananmen Square democracy movement—and repression—frame the painting).  Another key influence, most obvious in the paintings on Chiapas and the Zapatistas, is the Mexican muralists, painters like Rivera and Orozco, who used bold, earthy, colors, and folk icons to enoble poor campesinos and workers.  However, despite the fact that Sanbonmatsu himself was born and raised in the United States and indeed has never set foot on the Asian land mass, a subtle Japanese sensibility pervades his works.  This can be seen, for example, in his anthropomorphic depictions of nature (e.g., the face in the mountain in “Remembering”), his use of “vulgar” comedic elements (bare asses, phalluses, etc.), and his frequent use of highly stylized, often minimalist shapes and forms (reminiscent, perhaps, of Japanese No Theater). 


As this overview suggests, the artist straddles not one but several different traditions—and worlds.  Hence the recurring theme of personal identity.  In several works (e.g., “Rape of Nanking”) Sanbonmatsu takes personal responsibility for the crimes of not one but two peoples and nations, the Japanese and the Americans.  At the same time, his deep compassion and solidarity extend even as far, we might say, as the artist himself.  For, despite his antipathy to any whiff of self-promotion or self-pity, Sanbonmatsu’s most moving painting is that representing his own family’s experience in a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II.  I am an oppressor, he seems to say, but I am also a victim.  And, he asks, aren’t we all?

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