As we entered the sun-drenched studio in Bushwick an elderly man stood with his back against a wall. A knit cap slouched over his head, a sweater draped over his shoulders and his eyes lay focused on the small turntable in front of him. “This is my Dad,” we were told. Apparently we weren’t the only ones who had come to visit Meguru Yamaguchi, a Brooklyn based artist who has made a name for himself by incorporating modern day technological idiosyncrasies like copy & paste, Instagram and Facebook into his artwork. These contemporary promulgations have a tendency to be viewed as self-indulgent, narcissistic and artificial. And yet, at the core of Meguru’s work – and himself as an artist – we find something that is incredibly pure and honest.
It was a frigid morning in February and Meguru had met us outside. In a t-shirt. He introduced us to his father Katsuzo Yamaguchi, a retired fashion designer who was previously creative director for Ozone Rocks, the now defunct high-end label for fashion house Ozone Community. “Being in the fashion business we were constantly surrounded by art,” says Meguru’s father, who always insisted on the culture being a large part of his family’s lives. This helps explain why, at the age of 6, Meguru took oil painting classes where he first encountered a Van Gogh. “Our teacher told us to try to recreate the masterpiece,” Meguru recalls of his younger, smaller self, toiling away in front of a small post card of “Sunflowers.” When asked who his favorite artist is, to this day Meguru will tell you it’s Van Gogh.
Meguru is 30 years old but when he was 15 (actually if it weren’t for his carefully trimmed facial hair he wouldn’t look a day older) the young artist had the opportunity to see the one of Van Gogh’s Sunflower paintings housed in the office building of a major insurance firm. It’s certainly an odd place for one of the most expensive paintings in the world, but also somehow fitting as part of the series was destroyed by fire during an air raid in 1945. Everything about the painting astonished Meguru but what really left an impression was how real and alive it looked compared to the postcard he had studied as a child. It was an important distinction between virtual and reality that would go on to impact him as an artist.
Meguru grew up in Shibuya, Tokyo a hot bed for street culture, which was blossoming in the late 90s and early 2000s. In art school he met the NY-based artist Tomokazu Matsuyama, who encouraged him to visit New York. On a whim Meguru took the plunge and never looked back. “At the time Matsuyama-san probably thought he lured in a real pain in the ass,” joked Meguru. But pain in the ass or not, Meguru ended up spending 5 years working for Matsuyama as his assistant.
Don’t get the floors dirty
In New York, Meguru continued to paint. His style was a hybrid: part memories from classic manga like Dragon Ball, part legacy from Tokyo’s graffiti and street culture, and part influence from the colorful work of his boss. Meguru recalls an incident in which Matsuyama went away on a business trip but let him use his studio. “Just don’t get the floors dirty, he told me.” So to play it safe Meguru decided to lay plastic film sheets for protection. Sure enough, he spilled. As he was cleaning up Meguru noticed that the paint he had spilled peeled off, revealing parts the resembled puzzle pieces. This, as he would later come to realize, served as a starting point for what would become his signature style of collaging pieces of paint together.
A Melting Pot of Styles
Like all artists, Meguru’s style is a portmanteau of masters that came before him. And his enthusiasm in revealing his artistic SparkNotes shows a deep respect for the techniques of others. Gerhard Richter and graffiti artist Swoon in the way they cut out their subjects. Eric Carle in the way he paints many tissues and leaves them to dry for later use. Jackson Pollock and his undisguised actions. And, more recently, Ryusuke Fukahori in the way he layers resin. It’s a melting pot of styles, just like Tokyo and his adopted home of New York.
From Instagram to Insta-art?
Today, Meguru’s work, aside from the abstract streaks, are mostly portraits. And understandably so given the proliferation of selfies on social media. Indeed, many of his subjects come from photos he unintentionally sees on facebook, twitter and instagram. “I guess one of my friends ‘liked’ someone else’s photo and so that showed up in my feed,” recalls Meguru. “It was a photo that belonged to someone completely unknown to me and I was intrigued by the way this landscape appeared and then disappeared right in front of me.” But there’s nothing momentary about Meguru’s paintings. He takes his time on each piece, often putting them aside to let them “ferment” and then returning to them. This one in particular took 2 years, practically a lifetime in social network years.
Meguru wandered off into a corner and returned with several trowels. “I started off with this,” he said, referring to the small one. Then he held up a large industrial-looking one. “But now I use this. It takes two people.” He was referring to his paint streaks, which are made by starting off with large puddles of paint and, in a single swoop, spread across a protective film that lay strewn across the studio. Once the paint dries, Meguru painstakingly removes all the parts, small and large, that do not contain paint. This can takes several days but once complete it is then sealed with a coat of resin. The resulting piece – an almost violent swipe of color – can be installed on walls and building facades. In fact, a similar piece was installed on the façade of the Japanese-owned East Village bike shop Chari & Co. last year.
Landscapes – a historically classical subject in art – is important for Meguru. Some of his most daring and exciting aspirations have to do with the urban landscape of New York. “I would love to be able to paint an entire building facade,” he says, with a child-like naivete. And yet his sincerity may very well pay off. Amongst potential upcoming projects is a mural on the side of a building in Harlem, as well as a collaboration with the fashion label Rag & Bone to display his work on their walls. But public art also means throwing yourself into a sometimes-merciless pack of critics and vandals. When a previous piece was in the Lower East Side was damaged Meguru attempted to return to the site to restore it. But instead of blaming others he carries the burden himself. “If the artwork is powerful enough, no one will mess with it.”
As usual, Huey (7) had a few questions for Meguru.
Meguru was kind enough to offer a piece of his art to a lucky reader. To qualify all you have to do is leave a comment below and 1 person will be selected at random. Don’t worry, we’ll cover postage anywhere in the world! You have till April 1, 2014 to enter.
(Special thanks to Kaori and Masako for making this visit possible. For all our previous studio visits, click here)