PITTSBURGH — Cry, Baby at The Andy Warhol Museum is the first solo museum exhibition for Devan Shimoyama, a Pittsburgh artist, not yet 30. It includes 30 paintings, three sculptures, and four photographs. The survey covers a surprisingly brief period of time, 2015–18, with most of the work from the last two years.
A large exhibition like this inevitably puts great pressure on a very young artist. It also offers a marvelous challenge for reviewers. Shimoyama’s art is, as yet, uneven, but he has enough ‘moves’ to thrive as an artist. Using high-pitched colors and iridescent backgrounds, Shimoyama frequently attaches artificial flowers, glitter or fabric to his paintings. And often he uses flowers to represent eyes.
His work is full of productive, smart borrowings from recent figurative art. He has learned from Bob Thompson to give flat surfaces to the bodies of his figures, often blanking out the details of their faces. Julian Schnabel’s art has taught him the value of attaching found objects to his paintings. His color owes something to Edvard Munch and, closer to the present, to Chris Ofili. Like Kehinde Wiley, he loves decorative backgrounds. And his home-brewed iconography may owe something to Francesco Clemente. But out of these influences he makes something authentic which is very much his own.
A number of these paintings depict life in a barbershop, where Shimoyama or other black men are portrayed as customers. “Finesse” (2017) presents the artist getting his hair cut. He reappears in “Sit Still” (2018), wearing a salon cape that resembles a regal robe made of feathers. “Lil Man” (2017) shows a young boy in the barber’s chair. And “Michael” (2018) depicts a man with a to-die-for flower-patterned, collaged fabric torso wielding an electric clipper on his own hair.
Mythological themes are also explored with a contemporary twist. “Daphne’s Prayer” (2016) depicts Shimoyama as the green nymph famously pursued by Apollo, who escapes his clutches by turning into a tree. And a number of pictures feature snakes, identified by the artist as the guardian of sacred spaces. “He Lies, He Cries” (2016), in which a green snake winds around the man’s head, is a good example.
In these works, many imbued with campy fantasy, you can almost feel Shimoyama searching for an iconography to match his strong feelings. The catalogue describes his eloquent queer imagining of the terrors of African-American barbershops. “The barbershop paintings,” he says, “were made, in part, as a response to feeling alienated from the typically hypermasculine barbershop as a queer black man” What we see, however, are glittering, celebratory images — self-portraits or depictions of other handsome young men, perhaps filled with doubt, but emphatically not the terrorized figures of Francis Bacon.
But some of his most interesting paintings are the smaller ones. “Plucked” (2016), a hand holding flowers amid a floral background in a field of tears, is remarkable, as is “Cry Baby,” of the same year, with two hands clutching a large tombstone against a similar background. Shimoyama rarely shows more than one figure, and he doesn’t do narratives. That means that he is not well suited to doing political art.
In general, this presentation did good service for Shimoyama. We did, however, find some questionable curatorial decisions. The four large color photographs of the artist playing at being a shaman, the discrete product of his own admitted disorientation at a Fire Island Artist Residency, don’t fit alongside the body of his art. As he says in the catalogue: “I went there with the intention of connecting to other people and instead ended up representing a moment alone in nature exactly as I had been doing in my paintings.”
Shimoyama shows three sculptures, two of them flower-covered swings, “For Tamir III” and “For Tamir IV” (both 2018), memorials to the black youth Tamir Rice, murdered by a Cleveland policeman in 2014. They are all beautiful, but you need to look at the wall labels to grasp that they are meant to be political works. In general, the show’s labels frequently make excessive claims, forcing interpretations instead of leaving you free to look for yourself. And setting his “Miss Toto” (2018) apart from the retrospective, in the gallery devoted to Andy Warhol’s series Ladies and Gentlemen (1975), his late paintings of drag queens, was a mistake. Rather than pointing to unexpected affinities, the juxtaposition shows how different these two painters are.
Rarely have we seen an exhibition where there is such a vast distance between the announced claims of the curator, Jessica Beck, and the artist — as presented in the wall labels and the catalogue — and the obvious content of the pictures themselves. These claims present Shimoyama as an angry political artist, responding to the much discussed recent police murders of black men. But mostly these aren’t explicitly political paintings, except, of course, insofar as the legitimate celebration of male beauty by a black man is a political act. The content, which we are told to look for, simply isn’t there in the pictures. Barbershops are fascinating, and no doubt can be menacing, but surely there’s a vast distance between homophobic barbers and racist police in the streets. Maybe it’s revealing that “Let Me Help” (2015), the one painting that aspires to be a political narrative, is a very beautiful presentation of two struggling figures, an action that’s oddly difficult to read.
Our critical observations shouldn’t detract from our admiration for this artist, or for the museum’s presentation of him. The Warhol has done what an enterprising institution should do — display in depth a challenging local young figure. And we believe that Shimoyama is worth criticizing, for his work is very strong. The best painting in the show is the most recent one, “Weed Picker” (2018), too new to be reproduced in the catalogue. In the picture, the artist, who is working on his small garden, looks at us. He is wearing a shirt bearing the names of the female characters from the 1990s sitcom, Living Single. Here most of our worries about his other figurative pictures are resolved. This is a small masterpiece. In an interview in the catalogue Devan says: “It’s a really exciting moment to be making images of people of color.” His art demonstrates that he’s right.
Devan Shimoyama: Cry, Baby, curated by Jessica Beck, The Milton Fine Curator of Art at The Andy Warhol Museum, continues at The Andy Warhol Museum (117 Sandusky Street, Pittsburgh) through March 17, 2019.