“Mr. Gokita's vocabulary barrels across illustration, pornography, abstraction, children's drawing, calligraphy and sign-painting, with a perfect control, velvety surfaces and tonal range that makes black-and-white feel like living color.”
Vanity 3 is at once elegant and grotesque, seductive yet hauntingly unsettling – a large and superlative specimen from Gokita Tomoo’s increasingly acclaimed oeuvre. Executed in the artist’s distinctive greyscale palette, the abstract-figurative hybrid group portrait of three smartly-clad partygoers arouses a commanding ambiance evocative of film noir – darkly resplendent and cryptic in its heady concoction of Pop, Surrealism, Cubism, Neo-Expressionism and Japanese graphic design. Created in 2015, a decade after Gokita made his decisive career shift from graphic designer to artist, Vanity 3 displays mature and virtuosic chiaroscuro-esque techniques, showcasing Gokita’s pristine technical precision across diverse painterly methods such as staggered lines, sharp gradients, spectacular sheens and tonal ranges and bold smears, erasures and gouges. The effect is luxurious, lavish and eerily disquieting – a wholly iconic and singular aesthetic reminiscent of diverse visual languages spanning graphic design, calligraphy, and cutouts from vintage postcards and magazines. In Roberta Smith’s words: “Mr. Gokita’s vocabulary barrels across illustration, pornography, abstraction, children’s drawing, calligraphy and sign-painting, with a perfect control, velvety surfaces and tonal range that makes black-and-white feel like living color makes black-and-white feel like living colour” (Roberta Smith, ‘Stranger Town: Invading Genres Breach the Art World’s Porous Borders’, The New York Times, March 9, 2005).
Gokita first worked as a successful illustrator and graphic designer in the 1990s before turning to drawing and painting. During his early days as an artist, the choice of a limited palette was a solution to financial struggles. Gokita’s breakthrough came in 2000 when the Japanese publisher Little More released 3,000 copies of his artist book Lingerie Wrestling, which swiftly sold out and became a cult classic. In 2005, the New York-based artist Taylor McKimens discovered a copy of Lingerie Wrestling and invited Gokita to take part in a group show in Chelsea. Gokita’s works were extremely well received and initiated gallery interest, leading to a slew of solo shows and critical acclaim that launched him into the New York art world. Inspired by his former career as a graphic designer in the fashion and music industry, Gokita’s aesthetic culls found imagery from 1970s Playboy magazines, pin-up posters, vintage post cards, record sleeves, classic film stills and other reference points appropriated from Japanese and Western popular culture and marginal counterculture. Many of these early paintings found a foundation in his pencil and ink sketches, as the artist “still loves drawing, which he finds ‘relaxing’ […] But over time Gokita […] upended his art-making process by painting freely without the aid of any preliminary drawings” (Elaine Ng, ‘One Thousand Shades of Gray: Tomoo Gokita’, ArtAsiaPacific, July-August 2015).
An important compositional strategy employed by Gokita is the deliberate facial obscuration of his subjects or erasure of human forms via varying degrees of smudges, scrawls and swirls. Such a tendency can be noted as early as 2008; by crossing, smearing or mutilating facial features, Gokita frustrates the viewer’s gaze and asserts a critical distance between the voyeuristic subject and object. While the luscious canvas surface and graphically seductive forms beckons the viewer’s gaze, Gokita’s masterful manipulation of pigment and shapes, shade and light denies entry and deeper engagement, keeping the viewer at bay; while at the same time electrifying the canvas surface with tension, violence and mystery. Such a phenomenon is reminiscent of Gerhard Richter’s late-1960s hazily blurred photorealist works, which likewise obscured and manipulated found imagery. Gokita’s aesthetic in the present work also echoes that of the psychologically charged works of Francis Bacon; much like Bacon’s iconic series of screaming popes from the 1950s, which the artist worked solely from photographs of Velazquez’s painting of Pope Innocent X, Gokita employs found imagery as a starting point followed by intentional distortion. In Bacon’s own words, his defacing of his popes enabled him to hit “the nervous system more violently and poignantly” and thus get to the reality behind the image; much in the same manner, Gokita’s paintings violate the brain’s ability of recognition, inducing a visual and cerebral shock.
Executed with masterful, authoritative poise and confidence, Vanity 3 ranks amongst the best of Gokita’s oeuvre. Set against an anonymous space of deep black, the two dapper male figures flank a full-bosomed lady in a cocktail gown – their faceless heads jarring fiercely with the lush extravagance of their attire. Titled Vanity 3, the present work manifests perhaps as a mockery of the increasingly visual-centric and material-centric world under the perpetual advancement and dominance of social media. Bombarded by images and stereotypes on a daily basis, we are looking but no longer seeing; in continuance of a long tradition of artists exploring the shifting borders between realism and abstraction, Vanity 3 presents a shrewd contemporary investigation on the challenges of representation, the phenomenon of seeing and the role of the viewer in the 21st century.