Your exhibition at Perrotin gallery is titled “Hello Darkness, My Old Friend (I’ve come to talk with you again)”, its such a beautiful title, reminding us of the sad song of Simon & Garfunkel. Why did you choose this title?
The title of the exhibition is borrowed from a Simon & Garfunkel song. My dad loved Simon & Garfunkel. He wanted me to become a salary-man, but I wanted to be an artist. I moved to New Jersey when I was six and I didn’t speak a word of English. Then, I moved to New York in my 20s to become an artist. But, it didn’t work out for me. In a way, this exhibition is about being very alone even when you are surrounded by many other people. These were the best and worst years of my life. After 9/11 happened, I couldn’t get work, and I decided to move to Japan to give being an artist one final go. There, I was once again an outsider. Not quite Japanese, not quite American. Nostalgia for any sense of belonging is kind of bittersweet. Everyone has a little bit of darkness in them.
Tell us about this very intimate new exhibition. Why did you decide to delve into an autobiographical body of work? Why now?
When I was painting for the show I had with Kaikai Kiki Gallery last year, I painted myself in one work wearing a Cub Scout uniform when I was 3rd grade. I thought this was an interesting idea, so I started expanding from there. Since the world was in lockdown, I couldn’t travel anywhere and decided to travel inside and explore my inner self.
There wasn’t some big plan for this NYC show, so I began with my own memory. In a way, all of my work is about memory. Specifically, I am interested in how experience enters memory, and once there, how it’s flattened into a two-dimensional image. Memory makes images feel simultaneously very close and very far. It’s been nearly four decades since I was a six-year-old in the suburbs of New Jersey being called “Pearl Harbor.” Now, my memories are memories of my memories. They are images. Perhaps that was what I was waiting for.
Your artist career blew up after Takashi Murakami invited you to do an exhibition in Japan and started collecting your work. Tell us about this turning point in your life, returning to your homeland, and starting over to become a well-known artist?
I came back to Japan in 2004. Up until Takashi found me on Instagram in September 13, 2015, I was a struggling starving artist. He offered me a show at Hidari Zingaro in August of 2016. That’s when my life changed, a complete 180. The funny thing is that I got imported back to Japan and then got exported again, metaphorically speaking.
Takashi was the first person who really believed in me. Over the past four years, he has taught me what being an artist is and to dig into myself, be honest with myself. I knew I could do it, but it took work to finally express it. I still don’t think of myself as a well-known artist at all.
When, and how, did you meet Emmanuel Perrotin?
I first met Emmanuel at Perrotin in Paris when Takashi did a show there in 2016. I went to see the show because I wanted to see the painting which Takashi and I collaborated on. Emmanuel didn’t know who I was back then, but we quickly clicked and I had my first solo show with the gallery soon after, in 2017.
Your work is full of spontaneity, emotions and childlike energy, they can seem very happy and very sad. Does your own mood define your paintings?
I chose spray paint as a medium partially because you can work so quickly, and whatever I have in my head is immediately on the canvas. My works are kind of like an unfiltered release of my perspective on the world. If I let things sit for too long, I lose the thought. Usually, my mood doesn’t affect how I paint. Instead, I try to adjust my emotions to the theme of what I’m painting. But, when I’m pissed off, I paint really fast.
At what age did you start painting and why?
When I moved to N.J. in August of 1980, I spoke no English, so I had to draw to communicate. That’s when I first realized that I could communicate with people through drawing.
In 2001, I was introduced to a group of graffiti artists, The Barnstormers. I was immediately intrigued with their technique and this community, who welcomed me with open arms.
When I move back to Japan, I first began by spray painting Old Masters, which I guess was a gut reaction from art school. To this day, spray painting allows me to express myself in the best way possible.
You often reference something ‘Old’ in your works, from Old masters to The Ramones, your work gravitates between art history and mass culture to create something totally unique. Why do you like to re-invent archival material?
I express myself through the images I grew up with. I wasn’t taught hierarchies in a typical way, because I grew up between two cultures and because I wasn’t formally taught art history until I was older. All my subjects are on the same level, because that is how I learned to understand the world, as an outsider. For me, for example, Rembrandt and Ramones are on the same plane. There’s no hierarchy.
It’s said that as a child you felt isolated and socially distanced when you moved to America from Japan, since you did not speak a word of English, you felt distant. This is also represented by the way you work with spray paint and don’t touch your paintings. Have you always felt isolation? How does it affect your artistic language? Did quarantine and it’s required isolation change anything for you?
Alienation has always been my theme. And it still is. I guess that’s one of the reasons I paint. I like being alone. I feel most comfortable when I’m all by myself.
Spray paint is often associated with street art but you use it as paint on canvas. Would you ever consider a public art project?
My work is not street art, it is only because of the spray paint that it has the association. Yes, I use the paint can as a brush, so I don’t belong in street art or fine art, in the same way I don’t belong in one culture. Maybe someday I would consider public art, if it felt right.
Has the pandemic changed anything in the way you work, or in the way you perceive art in general?
For the past 4 years with Kaikai Kiki, I had no time to rest. It was non-stop. The pandemic allowed me to rest my mind. I got to spend more time thinking about paintings and the subject matter I wanted to paint.
What are you working on next?
I just finished painting for this show, and I need time to digest.
MADSAKI, HELLO DARKNESS, MY OLD FRIEND (I’VE COME TO TALK WITH YOU AGAIN)
SOLO SHOW, Exhibition April 29 - June 5, 2021
Perrotin Gallery, 130 Orchard St, New York, NY 10002
Photos courtesy of Perrotin Gallery