Longtime visual-arts patrons in Pittsburgh might remember Yasumama Morimura's introduction to the area as part of the 1992 Carnegie International, one of the artist's first major showings outside of his native Japan. Two decades later, Morimura has gathered international acclaim and is the focus of a large solo exhibition at The Andy Warhol Museum, Yasumama Morimura: The Theater of the Self.
Then, as now, Morimura uses the self-portrait to represent himself in the environment of art. Now, unlike then, the self-portrait has become a tool used by many to represent themselves in the environment of social media. However, in Morimura's portraits, the artist himself is fully obscured, hidden within the work — his images, while selfies, actually depict someone else.
Morimura begins with existing images — paintings, drawings, etchings, photographs — and recreates each with himself as all figures represented. He meticulously duplicates every element of the works he replicates through props, costumes and set, and steps into not only the featured role but the full cast list. The results range from disquieting to hilarious. Perhaps the strangest thing is that one can spend an afternoon examining the exhibition piece by piece but — despite the fact that Morimura is the sole face pictured, his visage standing in for that of every human depicted in every work — emerge with no real idea of what the artist looks like.
The exhibition is divided, based on Morimura's own input, into three categories: art history; the "Requiem" series, devoted to interpretation of iconic photography; and actresses. Each of the sections is enthralling, each approaches its subjects with a lovely balance of reverence and humor, and each intrigues and delights the viewer.
The art-history representations span from classical to pop art. Interestingly, the former spur more feelings of amusement, while the latter seem more imbued with gravity. In "Fugato," Morimura transforms into both lady and servant, white and black, in a take on Manet's "Olympia." Several works place him in the stead of Frida Kahlo, her own work based in self-portraiture. Morimura substitutes hallmarks of Kahlo's nativity with his own — cranes, koi, temples — and replaces her signature traditional shawl with a Louis Vuitton pashmina wrap. He embodies the Mona Lisa pregnant and clothed, pregnant and naked, and pregnant and cross-sectioned, a fetus curled up inside her body. (The fetus does not appear to have Morimura's features, but it's hard to tell.) The botanical truth that sunflowers do not actually have faces did not hinder Morimura from inserting his own into Van Gogh's paintings.
The "Requiem" series is devoted to photographic works ranging from journalism to portraiture. Mao, Marilyn, Einstein — they are iconic images fairly straightforwardly approached, and out of context you might walk past them without looking twice. The recreation of the infamous photo of Lee Harvey Oswald's shooting by Jack Ruby, with Morimura shooting Morimura, is thrilling, as are his takes on Hitler via Chaplin.
The majority of the paintings and photographs saluted are all fairly well known, and will light the spark of recognition in anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of fine art and historical imagery. In the "Actresses" segment, a few of the movie "stars" he represents are somewhat obscure. We'll easily identify Dietrich in Blue Angel, Liz in Cleopatra drag, and Marilyn in recklessness. But although Sylvia Kristel was the lead in a film seminal of its genre (Emmanuelle), her image and name are less familiar.
Yet investing the distant, foreign and olden with familiarity and, by turn, identification is one of the astonishing outcomes of Morimura's work. "Angels Descending Staircase" is so staggering just based on the magnitude of its population that it might make you a bit giddy to look at. It nods to Edward Burne-Jones' Pre-Raphaelite stand-by "The Golden Stairs," an extravaganza resembling a Busby Berkeley grand finale set in the heavens, and is an accomplishment in costume, makeup, hair, set design, color, texture, pattern and light. "After Marilyn Monroe" is a plain black-and-white photograph with simple clothing, aping an iconic image of the star that inspired one of Andy Warhol's most identifiable works. What Morimura does by casting himself in all of these roles is to make them accessible to us as well, connecting us to art and to each other by refusing to limit himself to being classified as anything but "subject."
At 4 p.m. Sat., Nov. 23, the museum will host a discussion of Morimura's work. Participating are museum director Eric Shiner; Nicholas Chambers, the Warhol's Milton Fine Curator of Art; art professor and Warhol assistant archivist Cindy Lisica; and Charles Exley, a University of Pittsburgh assistant professor of Japanese literature and film. Seating is first-come, first-served, and admission is free with museum admission.