Portrait: E'Wao Kagoshima
New York’s art world is filled with careerists, but it is also filled with those who consciously moved away from the art machine, pursuing their practice without the steady support of galleries or institutions. E’wao Kagoshima, nearly eighty years old, falls into this latter category. For those who have encountered him he is known as an eccentric, a painter who brings his brush with him everywhere he goes, treating the city as his canvas and marketplace.
I first encountered E’wao Kagoshima’s art at the White Columns Annual in 2012, where a singular painting of his stood out and grabbed me from a large group show. The piece, a small, bizarre depiction of smiling anthropomorphic trains bursting through an abstraction, was entitled Overtime (2018). But I was clueless as to who would have created such an image. When I found out that the artist was a Japanese émigré who had been living in New York since the 1970s, I was even more intrigued. I had visited Japan numerous times, and had studied the language for a decade, so the prospect of finding a brilliant artist in my city from a country I had adopted as a second home was tantalising, to say the least. Though his online presence was negligible, I found that he showed at one of my favourite galleries downtown, Algus Greenspon, so I decided to keep an eye out for his work wherever it would appear.
As luck would have it, I ended up working at Algus Greenspon, hired as an occasional art handler and installer. Their storage space held many things, but it was Kagoshima’s work in particular that I wanted to examine up close. When his name came up with the gallerists, it was mostly to discuss his eccentricities. Though he had managed to make a living as an artist since he was in his twenties, with the help of his long-time wife, his career was never a stable one. In 2000 his wife passed away, and finding little success with gallery representation, he took to selling his art on the street in SoHo as a means of supporting himself, alongside other artists, one of whom, his countrywoman Misaki Kawai, went on to considerable art- world success. Though Kagoshima was regularly exhibiting in galleries around the world, he would still hawk his wares on the street when he needed money. Considering the discounted prices offered to people on the street, when he was part of a gallery programme, his dealers would try (occasionally in vain) to dissuade Kagoshima from selling on his own, despite his circumstances.
Attempts to befriend the artist were fruitless. In addition to being eccentric, Kagoshima was a recluse, which meant that there were few chances to see him at openings. A number of years later, after discovering some of Kagoshima’s older writings online, I noticed that one copy of his “Painting Manifesto” from the 90s had a landline number on it. On a lark, I gave it a try and found to my surprise that Kagoshima had held on to the same number after all those years. We hit it off over the phone, and after speaking to the artist in his native tongue, I managed to convince him to pay me a visit at my studio in the South Bronx. In person, Kagoshima lived up to the quirkiness of his art. He arrived dressed in threadbare clothes and handmade accessories, bearing gifts in the form of old postcards, drawings, and an outdated Japanese travel magazine. After getting to know one another, I had the opportunity to visit his home and studio in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn, where he lives in an apartment decorated floor to ceiling with his art and design work. The pieces I saw there were filled with a kind of nostalgia for bygone eras – from Romantic landscapes to Surrealist caricature – all mashed together.
Kagoshima’s first name E’wao is a softened form of the Japanese word Iwao, which denotes a type of holy rock venerated by Shintoists. The anglicised version chosen by the artist for his Western nickname – “Rocky” – is thus both literally from the word for rock in Japanese as well as a reference to the 1976 film. I learned through our friendship that Kagoshima had first gained public attention in the time of late 60s Japanese Pop art, when, for his university thesis, he cast a series of bronze sculptures inspired by beer flowing from a pitcher. Soon thereafter, he found that the existing market for the avant-garde in Japan did not live up to its hype, and unable to sustain any semblance of livelihood as an artist, Kagoshima began to support himself by making jewellery, shoes, and handbags. He then spent two years in London within the English fashion world, all the while nursing his painterly desires on the side, admiring the work of David Hockney and R.B. Kitaj.
Kagoshima then returned to his native Japan, where he embarked on a series of ostentatious works inspired by Surrealism combined with a kind of hallucinatory orientalism. The works from this period traffic in a kind of overblown naiveté hiding under the smoky haze of opium dreams and nightmarish nineteenth-century interiors. In Portrait of a Master (1974) the cosmos springs from what looks like a Manchurian noble’s head as bands of light emanate from the third eye of a moustachioed self-portrait. From the same period, the lacework stockings of an obscenely long-necked woman fractalise into fish scales in Pleasure Seeks Charlotte’s Effects (1975). In the same year’s I am somebody, a blue child knits together wiggling curlicues before a curtain pat- terned with jigsaw-puzzle designs that look like infantile Jasper Johnses.
Not long after painting these works in Japan, Kagoshima emigrated to what he then thought was the centre of the art world: New York. There, Kagoshima embarked on a new series of figurative works in which bodies were treated as brusque stand-ins for abstracted designs. One drawing from this period depicts a nude woman without arms or legs spread out like a floral arrangement; a rope trailing from her ass curls around a houseplant.
Kagoshima’s experiments with images of convoluted beauty would find an apex with the introduction of collage. He lived in Perry Street with his wife, and many collages of this period revolve around male pin-ups taken from their immediate surroundings in the West Village. Present too is the iconography of postmodern consumerism. In an untitled 1976 work, interior-design spreads are overlaid with painted beasts that trail off into decorative flourishes which terminate in a lurid carpet. In another untitled work, of 1980, a languorous naked youth lies seductively on a patterned quilt, subsumed beneath a galley made of newspaper clippings. The bizarre juxtaposition of source materials and styles is often supplemented by modernist motifs – black ovals, grids – alongside more Pop arrangements. The male figures in these collages, whose naked builds are often interrupted by abstract compositional elements, are potentially self-portraits in disguise, stand-ins for the pieced-together nature of the artist himself.
The 80s also saw television culture seep into Kagoshima’s palette, with the introduction of harsh neon tones and elements appropriated from local subway graffiti. In Positive on the Q.T. (1982), an ensemble of figures in various stages of undress appear to sacrifice a child in front of a fallout landscape. Made the same year, One Admission shows a noblewoman with a shocking blond plumage of hair drawing an electric bow as she prepares for target practice. Libidoll No. 1 (1982) depicts a gamine female cyclops in kimono committing seppuku, literally halving herself into two. The cut-open body reveals neither blood nor guts but instead another version of her face. There is a grotesque nature to some of these works: scenes of bloodshed, cannibalism, and murder, all played out with child protagonists. In the later years of the decade, in works like Let it be (1986), Kagoshima experimented with the diptych, complementing abstracted Rorschach tests with cartoon symbols in works filled with kitschy scenes of toxic waste.
In manifestos and recorded conversations from the 80s and 90s, we get some clues from the artist about his choice of subject matter. The cartoonish faces are a “fictive feature of children [sic] images”, the protagonists “anonymous no human[s]”. The incessant drive to reproduce these pop forms is the result of what the artist dubs a “hand technocracy” – a “methodical way of painting” for “today’s machine society”. “Lost Nature” turns out to be one of the true subjects of Kagoshima’s work, then: the search for an idyllic, pre-human state of grace.
In the past two decades, Kagoshima circled back to many of his earliest influences, producing work that draws upon the romantic impulses of artists like Louis Eilshemius, Florine Stettheimer, and Joseph Cornell. Kagoshima introduced a new motif of tiny, ethereal creatures, built up on the surface of his canvases with putty. In small, strangely intimate paintings such as Float B and Chime A (both 2012), and Not Yet (2014), modernist monuments are turned into amusement parks, their structures used for hanging up laundry, or for trains.
As for Kagoshima’s appeal for younger artists (like myself), it is most likely due to its rejection of any stable notion of identity: every character that surfaces in one of his paintings is buried beneath an arrangement of non-figurative elements. The perverse nature of Kagoshima’s breakdown of conventional signage is the perfect response to a world oversaturated by signs, and despite his age and relative obscurity, Kagoshima’s work is as timely as ever.
E’WAO KAGOSHIMA was born in 1945 in Niigata, Japan, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Solo exhibitions have taken place at Brennan & Griffin, New York (2019); The Box, Los Angeles, (2018); Galerie Gregor Staiger, Zurich (2016); and Algus Greenspon Gallery, New York (2014). Among other group shows he has participated in “The Baltic Triennial”, CAC Vilnius, “Out of Control”, Venus Over Manhattan, New York (both 2018); “The History Show”, Foxy Production, New York; “Namedropping”, Jan Kaps, Cologne (both 2017); “Animality”, Marian Goodman Gallery, London (2016); and “Unorthodox”, Jewish Museum, New York (2015).
He is represented by Gregor Staiger (Zurich) and Greenspon Gallery (New York).
SVEN LOVEN is an artist and currently lives and works in the South Bronx.