There’s no escaping the influences of one’s cultural heritage. Not that Jacob Hashimoto would want to.
The Japanese and Irish American artist has incorporated Eastern aesthetics in a way that sets him apart from big names in the contemporary art scene coming from Japan. In a world where originality is an important component of success, Hashimoto has certainly flourished.
From his New York studio, over Skype, he talks about his rocky start more than 10 years ago in a small live-work space on Glendale Boulevard in Los Angeles. After graduating from college he had been juggling two day jobs, toiling on his own projects by night, sleeping a few hours, and living hand to mouth.
Now, at 41, in his studio office, he’s interrupted with printer issues. Five assistants work around a family-size table in the other room, painting and assembling commissioned pieces headed to Chicago, Miami and Italy.
In September he’ll be showing in New York at the Mary Boone Gallery, known for representing prominent artists at the epicenter of the contemporary art scene.
L.A. Times art critic David Pagel praised his current exhibit at the Pacific Design Center of the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles as “all around us, and bigger than everyone.”
Hashimoto, however, is humble and soft spoken. His youthful smile is contrasted by salt and pepper hair, and a cadence that is almost professorial. So it’s not surprising that he originally set out to be an art scholar. But the rigorous academic world was too competitive for him.
“There were at least five people in my freshman class that were better than me at everything I did well, more enthusiastic and more driven,” he said. He found he was more suited for making art than studying it.
Perhaps in part because of his academic background, Hashimoto is reflective and analytical when describing the Asian influence in his work. The way he explains his art, the Japanese aspects are seemingly incidental.
“A lot of people ask about my material choices, and I think a lot of cultural content is ascribed to them. But I just use the best materials for the job. I use bamboo because it is strong and incredibly versatile,” he said. “Japanese papers are incredibly strong and are made in a manner that allows me to manipulate them into very painterly nuanced surfaces.”
These are the components that make up Gas Giant, a sprawling large-scale installation of thousands of tiny brightly painted kite sculptures suspended by fishing lines and dangling from the ceiling of the MOCA Pacific Design Center.
The kites themselves, a recurring building block in Hashimoto’s body of work, weren’t originally drawn from Asian kites at all. Rather, they came about at a time when he was feeling creatively blocked.
His father suggested he find a hobby building something like airplanes or kites to keep him coming to the studio and staying engaged in some way.
Running with the kite idea, Hashimoto began building small diamond-shaped European kites to fly in the park across from his studio. Soon after, the process of perfecting and building those kites led to about 30 of them thumbtacked to the wall.
“I was mucking around in the studio one day, and I looked at the collection of kites and thought, ‘I can totally do something with those …' ” he said. “And they’ve taken my work and me places I never thought possible.”
Those diamond-shaped “Ben Franklin” type kites morphed into Japanese, Thai and finally Chinese style kite patterns in Hashimoto’s installations. But most of that was due to the formal aspect of the Chinese kites, because they were flat and made of wood and paper, which worked for the type of structures he was assembling.
Each tiny kite in Gas Giant has a design or image painted in colored acrylic, flat landscape patterns, or graphic repetitions that hint at a decidedly Japanese aesthetic.
The artist’s particular interest in Japanese culture is defined, in part, by his distance from it.
Hashimoto’s father, the son of Japanese immigrants, was born in 1945 into a very hostile postwar American environment. Most of his Japanese family had been interned in camps during the war, and he was part of a generation of people of Japanese ancestry who were discouraged for political and social reasons from keeping any sort of ties to their homeland.
As a result Hashimoto grew up in what he describes as a very run-of-the-mill American household, with some subtle Japanese influences. Shoes off when you enter the house, and occasional “yakisoba,” but that was mostly it. He was raised in Wala Wala, Wash., where there were only two other Japanese families.
“You were always aware that you were somehow seen as different or not belonging,” he said. This led to a fascination with Japanese culture, fueled by the sense that he belonged to something other than the community he grew up in.
Artist Keiko Hara was from one of those two Japanese families in Wala Wala. Although Hashimoto has been influenced by artists of varying cultural and artistic backgrounds, Agnes Martin, James Turrell and Laura Owens to name a few, his strongest early influence was Hara, whom he assisted while he was in college. During summers he carved woodblocks for her and cut her “katagami” stencils.
If Hara’s interest in nature, balance and order made an impression on him, it shows in the delicate images and patterns etched on the kites in Gas Giant.
“The aesthetics of her craft and process were really influential to me at the time, and I’m sure they had an indelible effect on my mature artistic production,” Hashimoto said.
Hashimoto’s fascination with Japan began with its traditional culture. He was particularly drawn to 18th-century ukiyo-e and gilded screen paintings, and the Buddhist concepts of Yukio Mishima’s novel "The Temple of the Golden Pavilion."
This interest enabled Hashimoto to distinguish himself from most prominent contemporary Japanese artists such as Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara who were rebelling against tradition with pop culture-inspired art that referenced modern Japanese society.
Hashimoto’s work is more influenced by the aesthetic aspects of more antiquated traditions, and these aspects have been freshly and gracefully incorporated into his contemporary installations.
“There’s a tendency to look toward all that culture that had been abandoned by my parent’s generation and reclaim some of that territory,” he said
Hashimoto’s cultural interests may not always be conceptually visible in his work, but Gas Giant clearly evokes a sense of nostalgia, a feeling that Japanese people often take pleasure in. The equivalent Japanese word “natsukashi” is probably used with more colloquial frequency among Japanese than “nostalgia” is among English speakers.
“It’s a safe, innocent mind space … maybe one that doesn’t exist for many of us in our day-to-day lives,” he said.
The bright optimistic color palate, the quiet, innocent landscapes and playful patterns imprinted on the kites all hint at memories of childhood, as well as the sadness that comes with the realization that it is long gone. Then, of course, in today’s technology-obsessed society, the use of craft-like handmade kites is inherently nostalgic.
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The author is a reporter for The Asahi Shimbun Los Angeles Bureau.
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