Artist Yoskay Yamamoto and his Wondrous Room-scapes
Yoskay Yamamoto produces striking California sunsets and personifies his world by adding contemplative faces to planets, houses, and mountains. His latest gallery exhibition, Homebound, tells a story about his life and interests through his intricate and dreamy paintings, wood sculptures, and installations. He's not afraid to challenge the stigma of painting sunsets and actually makes them cool. When he's not producing work for galleries, Yamamoto lands mural jobs and fun freelance projects. This past summer, he was chosen to be the artist for the LA Film Festival, and his peaceful moon face appeared on banners, bus benches, and billboards around Los Angeles. We caught up with Yamamoto on the last day of Homebound.
By Eric Nakamura
Photos by Kevin Vu Kim. Video edited by Sharon Choi.
Giant Robot: What’s different about your newest show, “Homebound”?
Yoskay Yamamoto: I spent a lot more time with each painting, which is why I have less this year compared to the amount in previous shows. I also explored different color palettes and combinations I hadn’t used before.
GR: The subject matter also seems to be changing.
YY: I guess so. There are a couple of new characters and motifs that I haven't used before, like the volcanic mountain, which was inspired by a Hokusai manga book from my American parents. Maybe I was also inspired by the Hawaii trip I took last year, when I got to see an active volcano with lava.
The other new character would be the sun. The “Yo” in my name Yoskay is the symbol for the sun. Growing up I didn't like that, because I felt it was pressure to be bright and energetic, but now I feel more comfortable with it.
GR: What about the color palettes? They seem like a California sunset.
YY: It’s a combination of my collection of sunset photos and also the sunset photos I see on social media. So some of it is not a California sunset, but I feel like the overall look represents California. People automatically link sunsets to the kind of landscapes that hobby artists do, but I feel that if it’s done in a modern or graphic way, I can create something a little more contemporary and not touristy.
Originally I started this as an exercise to be a better painter. Before, there was a slight color shift I couldn’t do, but now I feel comfortable with it. I also like the idea of the sky as something we all share. It’s calming to me.
GR: Are you trying to do more installations now?
YY: Originally I wanted to cover the entire back wall for the show. Then I realized there's a door on the right side of the wall, so I ended up doing a square instead. But if you ever do an exhibition at a museum, I would love to do a floor to ceiling work. That’s my next goal.
GR: Early on, your work was more sculptural. Why did you start with that medium?
YY: I was introduced to sculpture by the sculptor Joe Shea, who is also my friend. He showed me a type of clay that would cure by being exposed to air. I started playing with that and naturally started putting faces on things: spheres, teardrops and simple shapes that would take over people's iconic images. I had a phase of sculpting over the faces of characters such as Hello Kitty, Bart Simpson and Pikachu. Those felt like an uninvited collaboration series.
After that, I spent more time crafting my own things. I think these works [in Homebound] are the result of that slow progress. This is more fitting for what I do now, rather than taking somebody else's character.
GR: There’s one face that you use repeatedly. Is it meant to be one character?
YY: They are actually slightly different faces, but I like the proportion of that look. It’s a delicate balance because if I have the eyes too low or the mouth too high, it doesn’t look right to me. So it takes time to capture this look. In the Shinto religion, they believe everything has a soul, so that’s also part of taking the time to make a face.
GR: You’ve also been painting tapirs. What’s special about tapirs?
YY: I did a little research and found they have a romantic diet. They eat dreams, which is very cute. It’s part of both Chinese and Japanese mythology. Some think they eat nightmares, but I think Japanese people believe they eat dreams in general.
GR: Your show titles seem to be very nostalgic. Is there a reason for that?
YY: I'm not really focusing on nostalgia, but I guess that comes naturally to me.
I like the idea of people searching for places that they can call home. I like that feeling of a journey. I’m also an immigrant to this country, and every immigrant in America has to find their new home. Then I found out there's a double meaning for the word homebound. Another meaning is that you're stuck at home due to an illness or complex situation. And that fits me as well, so I thought it was the perfect title.
GR: Are you referring to reclusive adolescents like hikikomori?
YY: I think a lot of artists act like hikikomori because we spend so much time indoors.
GR: How does your work fit with the popularity of murals today?
YY: It’s been interesting to see murals change from street art to something promoted by companies. There are events being held, and people looking for actual illustrators like myself to do that kind of work. I think it's kind of cool to have a variety of artists painting murals around the world.
GR: Was it easy to scale your art?
YY: At first, I didn't know how to paint large while keeping proportions in place. I spent most of my time painting backgrounds. For example, I’d paint a starry night and then add a submerged head at my height to get away from worrying about scaling proportions. But now I feel more comfortable, so I want to do a properly sized mural if anyone gives me the chance.
GR: Do you look at murals differently from paintings?
YY: Not really. With murals, I feel like you can get away with putting on less paint. As long as it reads well, anything is okay. And you get to use your whole body painting. I like the physical exhaustion that I get from making murals.
GR: But is it getting easier or harder to do well? You once had a show in Chinatown where you sold almost all 100 objects on display.
YY: I think at that show people were looking for toys; it didn't matter if you were popular or not. They were small original sculptures. But to do another show based on that approach wouldn’t work in today’s economy. I don’t think the toy scene is as popular as it used to be 10 years ago. That was a good time though.
GR: Would you say toy figures in that scene helped your career?
YY: Definitely. My toy, produced by Monkey King, “Koibito,” was the first big exposure to the art world I got. Without that piece, I don't think my name would be in the media as much. At the same time, after I stopped making that character I lost collectors from a certain fan base. I’m an artist, so I’m constantly changing what I'm painting. I didn't want to be type-casted as that artist who paints fish.
GR: Luke Chueh also told me toys helped create his career. It’s funny to hear that’s how fine artists could get their start.
YY: If I'm doing a painting, it could be anywhere from $500-$3000. For some people that’s unaffordable. But most people can buy an $80 toy, and own something of my design with my name on it. It helps get your name out on blogs.
I created my last toy a few years back, so it's not like I finished making toys. My interest just moved on to something else.
GR: What direction are you moving in next?
YY: With the last show, painting was a struggle. In comparison this series came organically to me. I think what helped was sketching a lot of small drawings to submit to WonderCon or Comic-Con. That put my ideas on paper. From there, I just picked the ones I liked and made them into paintings. It’s a healthy process of turning my ideas into tangible art pieces.
GR: Which artists have influenced your work?
YY: There's a huge list. One of them is definitely Taiyō Matsumoto, because I cannot draw like he does, though I would like to be able to. I love how he pushes and pulls perspectives. Everything he draws – figures, landscapes, cars – belong to his style. I don’t think my skill is at his level yet.
Nara Yoshitomo and his installations are also a big influence on me. It’s a style influenced by Barry McGee, who composed many different images together to form humps and bumps.
GR: Is this how you came up with a tabletop installation for Giant Robot?
YY: I had this idea for a few years, but I didn't know how to execute it because I didn't know how to make a suspending sphere. I tried it once with clay. I made a frame and started putting clay around it, but I couldn’t get the nice round shape I wanted.
Then I came up with using paper mache over an exercise yoga ball, which worked quite well.
GR: What does it mean?
YY: I like the idea of the moon looking over the community. When I was little, I thought everybody had their own personal moon, because everywhere I went the moon would follow. I’ve always had a personal attachment to it. I almost think of the moon as a guardian or special being up there.
GR: This isn’t the first time you’ve done a California piece, but “California Dreamin” really resonated with people.
YY: Maybe because I'm an outsider, the California Republic flag is iconic to me. “California Dreamin” was also a cover I first heard from a Japanese punk band called Hi-Standard. They had it in a “Survival of the Fattest” compilation record by Fat Records when I was 15 or 16. I was surprised that a Japanese punk band would be making waves out here. So I guess this piece is a kind of homage to that song.
They are one of the biggest bands in Japan. They’re getting older now, but I remember even American kids were into it. I thought it was the coolest thing, that a band from Japan would be kicking ass out here.
GR: Many things about your work feel inspired by California.
YY: My earlier work had an "Oriental," Japanese feel to it. I think that’s something a lot of artists go through when they move here. Because once you've moved away from your culture, you find a new appreciation of its beauty. So in the beginning I combined traditional art with an urban pop approach. That’s where “Koibito” came from – taking an iconic Japanese fish and then adding a human body to it.
Now, I want to create something that's more organic. I'm not trying so hard to show that I'm Japanese, so I think these paintings that I’ve created are more honest.
GR: It seems like you were telling the story of your move from Japan to California.
YY: I guess that showed through because that’s just who I am. But it’s why I stopped focusing on Japanese-looking images of dragons and tigers.
Maybe it's too much California now. I added the California state flower, and the California bird, which is some type of a quail. But maybe I tried too hard to represent California in one piece.
GR: That might be the most popular piece in this whole show.
YY: Really? That's great. Everyone wants those on hats again, so maybe we’ll make a hat out of that piece.
Visit Yoskay Yamamoto's website here.