No Escaping the Past


The power of one's childhood environment usually can't be overestimated: Wherever you go, there you are again.

Whether through fond nostalgia or negative memories, there is really no escape, even if that background is as proudly--or deceptively--bland as suburbia.

There, in a sense, lies the subplot of the current show, by Ward Yoshimoto, at the Childress Gallery.

Yoshimoto is a Japanese American artist who was raised in the suburbs of Los Angeles, moved to New York in 1985 and now has a bicoastal marriage that takes him back and forth. His current show is his first in California; he has an upcoming exhibition in Paris.

Seeing his work in Southern California, albeit in the alternate universe that is Ojai, makes good contextual sense. The exhibition, both discreet and ironic, suggests a cross between the culture of the swap meet and that of personal shrines.

He creates sculptures that are quietly audacious--chicken-wire boxes full of found artifacts that buzz with various meanings, some implicit in what they are and some supplied according to the viewer's subjective eye.

"Twilight," hung in the gallery window, is a chicken-wire box full of tiny plastic martini glasses, emblems of backyard soirees peopled by weekend infidels and closet narcissists. Or the work could be a meditation on the sculptural elegance of objects that so many deem trashy. Or it could be simply cheeky fun. Or it could be all of the above.

Yoshimoto seems to understand intuitively the importance of restraint. He resists the temptation to pile his art high with junk, which is, after all, a cheap resource. Gracefulness of design mixes with his scavenger's instinct. Selective, sly juxtaposition does the trick, for example, in "Wash," with its blend of part of a Los Angeles map, plastic hands clasped in prayer and a sprinkling of poker chips. Fate meets faith and hopes for the best.

Cheesy Los Angeles typecasting gets the best of the artist in the piece "Hell A, El Lay," with its toy cars pressed into a swath of tire rubber. Punning, visual and otherwise, is the operative mode behind "Conceived," with rows of pennies and one lucky coin, with a sperm-like tail, aiming for the egg, in the form of a fishing weight.

The artful reconfiguration of junk continues with six smaller assemblage pieces, with such materials as a Playboy swizzle stick, a tiny toilet (in "Royal Straight Flush No. 3") and a computer card. "The Brown Suits," from another series of relief pieces, melds an image of a suit and targets against playing cards. A minuscule black-and-white image of vintage suburban streets--closer to World War II than Yoshimoto's own childhood--can be detected, like some blip of ancestral memory.

Some built-in messages are imparted in these works, about the consumerist ethos of American consciousness. But Yoshimoto treads lightly on the theme, stopping short of shrill parody. However, two pieces in his "Go for Broke" series can be read as targeting aspects of the American Way, and it is the cumulative effect of considering both pieces that delivers the message.

"Go for Broke No. 1" is an optical gag, a series of clear plastic circles with tiny stars and pieces of American flag, which, it turns out, spell out the title--a slogan for all-American gung ho-ism. "Go for Broke No. 2" is a container stuffed with those beloved green plastic army men, the kind that waddled through "Toy Story." It's an innocent, and common enough, sight, reminiscent of the bags full of plastic military might one may find for sale.

But the concentration of military force and superpower abuses are also reflexively creepy, a fact confirmed by the headlines.

All this from a piece of art made from scrap? Yes. Realizations can filter into the mind through some surprising, and surprisingly banal-seeming, packages.



Ward Yoshimoto, "Uncaged," through June 2 at the Childress Gallery, 319 E. El Roblar, in Ojai. Gallery hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Mon.-Sat.; 640-1387.


Josef Woodard, who writes about art and music, can be reached by e-mail at

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