On a recent chilly, wintry morning we visited the Brooklyn-based Japanese artist Tomokazu “Matzu” Matsuyama in his studio. If asked 15 years ago Matzu probably would not have told you that he saw himself becoming an artist. At least that’s not what his trajectory would have suggested. Armed mainly with bilingual abilities he gained from several years living in the States as a child – Matzu enrolled in business school at Sophia University in Tokyo. Then just out curiosity, while still a senior he enrolled in a 2-year graphic design course, at which point he noticed that he liked using his hands to physically make things much more than he expected. “The school hadn’t brought in Macs yet,” he told us, “so luckily for me everything was done by hand. And I just fell in love with drawing.”
Sumo Wrestling in Someone Else’s Ring
Among his hidden talents, Matzu was a professional snowboarder. But when his time on the slopes came to an abrupt end after an accident forced him into early retirement, he transitioned into designing ads for snowboards. “It was the perfect job,” he said. “New designs are released just twice a year so I could focus on schoolwork and devote my summer to creating graphic designs and art directions.” Although his unique vision captured the hearts of many, he became more interested in creating something completely his own. “I was sumo wrestling in someone else’s ring. I needed to shift gears but the question was, how do I sumo wrestle in my own ring? The answer,” Matzu told us, “turned out to be art.”
Smells Like Soy Sauce
There’s a lot going on in Matzu’s colorful, graphic work. Bi-polar elements like foreign/domestic, graphic/painterly, modern/traditional, edgy/academic swim through his paintings like the animals they’re inhabited by. But on the surface of those vibrant and energetic colors, one finds an unexpected familiarity, which, Matzu analyzes, is because “my work is heavy on the soy sauce.” Which perhaps explains the significant popularity of his works abroad. “Maybe it’s because Japan is an island but there’s a deep admiration for the foreign. Some Japanese might see my work and acknowledge it as a visual language that’s too close, too familiar.”
Matzu will be participating in the upcoming exhibition “Edo Pop,” which opens this week at Japan Society. You can read our interview with Miwako Tezuka, gallery director at JS, in which she talks briefly about the new show.
The Economics of Art
It would appear that Matzu is at a disadvantage when it comes to cost structure. His paintings – because he uses thin, watered down paints and applies layers sometimes 20 times – take a ridiculously long time to produce. His complex, curved canvases have to be outsourced to a factory where it costs up to 10x as much as a regular square-shaped canvas. And for what it costs him to produce his sculptures he could buy a mid-range Mercedes. “It’s close to impossible, ” he told us, when we asked if he makes a profit on these pieces. “But, you have to make what you want to make. Hopefully it ends up being an investment in myself, but I can’t help but create what I love.”
One of the strengths that Matzu attributes to his economics degree is not necessarily that he’s good with numbers, but that big numbers don’t scare him. Even if it costs $50,000 to put on an art show, he’ll press forward because he knows that if he sells $100,000 then he comes out even (because the gallery takes 50%).
And while his background in economics certainly helps define him as an artist, we got the sense that one of his true strengths lies in his lack of any formal art training. It’s what sets him apart from others in a world where being different is all that matters.
Matzu makes no attempt to hide the fact that he hires assistants to paint the works based on his very precise and articulate directions. He would create the original structure and creation “game plan,” but the works are highly labor intensive and requires as much help as possible to realize. While we talked, one of his studio assistants busily worked on small sections of a large painting that hung on the wall. “What do you look for in applicants,” we asked. “That they’re detail oriented and willing to put in their all for the sake of creating a perfect work – I do admit that tends to be Japanese,” Matzu said with a smile. “Oh, and it helps if your blood type is A.”
Having been influenced by artists like Basquiat and Keith Haring, getting the public involved in his art is something that’s always been very important to Matzu. But Matzu is very selective in the people he collaborates with. And he’ll only commit if he thinks his touch can create something special; a one-of-a-kind product. Case-in-point: above is a special edition series he did with Levis. His work is extend to the packaging, which he had printed, on front and back, a canvas, which further emphasizes the fact that the product inside is also an art work.
And below are a pair of Nike sandals he created. He convinced Nike to put his artwork on the sole so that the art is the first thing to rub off and disappear, which is slightly ironic, yet ephemeral and very poetic.
As usual, my son Huey had a few questions for Matzu:
You can see our other studio visits right here.
Masako Shiba (Global Relations)
Kaori Sohma (Photographer)