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By Kit Pancoast Nagamura
(The Internationalist Fall 2013 Vol. 51)
It's a prickly hot midday in August when I meet 44-year-old painter Shingo Francis at Galerie Paris, inside the 1911 Yokohama Mitsui-Bussan Building, Japan's first steel-reinforced office building. Against the gallery's white walls, Francis's paintings hum with an almost electric energy, like canvases split by tungsten lamps. The works comprising his one-man show, "Across the Line: A Voyage into the Void," feature a central white, or light-colored strip of space intensely compressed from above and below by thinly layered veils of oil color.
The third child of American painter Sam Francis and the second son of video artist Mako Idemitsu, Shingo brings the full force of two powerfully creative parents, and two disparate cultures, to his creative work. It is tempting to analyze his paintings as illustrations of those dual entities in his life compressing into a buzzing white space of a "void," but the concept verges on pop psychology, and I have a sense there is more to the artist's conceptualizations than that.
Moving from the echoing space of the gallery into a snug alcove, Francis leans back, relaxed. He's trim, sports a soul patch, and has an ease about him that is as pleasant as the weather in Santa Monica, where he was born.
Shingo first landed in Japan at the age of three, in 1972. His mother had brought him and his older brother, Osamu '82 back to her home country because things were not going too smoothly with Sam. Shingo's father followed his wife and children, and stayed in Japan from 1973-1974, but eventually he returned alone to the States. Shingo's parents then decided that the boys would remain in Japan for schooling, and visit their father in Santa Monica during the summers.
Shingo attended the American School in Japan's nursery school in Meguro until his mother next enrolled him at Nambuzaka elementary school for mornings, and at Nishimachi International School for afternoon classes. "My mom was doing her own artwork," Shingo recalls, "and she didn't want her kids coming home at noon, so we had afternoons at Nishimachi. I wasn't the only one on that split schedule; Tai Katoh '85, Nina Marini '85, Nobu Hara '85, and Luna Hirai '85, were too."
The divergent approaches to education at his elementary schools left a lasting impression on Shingo. "Nambuzaka was strict, and church-based," he recalls. "There was prayer, and it was totally foreign to me to sit in the pews. Everything was dark wood and serious and full of organ music. I believe in a power greater than me, whether you call it god, the universe, or the great spirit, even though I don't go to church or temple, but at Nambuzaka I mostly learned about sitting still and being scared. That might be okay, but I don't buy that whole fear and guilt thing."
Nishimachi International School, on the other hand, impressed Shingo as a warm and welcoming place, with an emphasis on communication. "Sharing was the big thing," he says laughing. "It was a whole philosophy, along with being thankful, and saying 'arigato!'"
Nishimachi International School particularly excited Shingo with its art program. "The school actually had a teacher devoted specifically to art. That made me understand that art was fully as important as math, English, or science," Shingo says. He fondly remembers his teacher at the time, Kazuo Tanaka, as being solicitous and passionate about art. "But we were a really wild bunch," Shingo admits. When asked to elaborate, Francis blushes, then admits to his transgressions. "We had to make clay coils, but I would take someone else's coil and smoosh it when they weren't looking. My own work, I was serious about, but I would smoosh someone else's. Of course there was the counter attack, and that's where things got out of hand," he recalls.
Though Francis doesn't harp on the fact, and has clearly come to terms with his past, he recalls that he struggled to be noticed. "My terrible twos lasted for a long time," he offers, "and I was a troublemaker at home—but I think I just wanted attention." No big surprise, given the cast of larger-than-life personalities in his family, and their substantial ambitions. In addition to his forceful parents, Francis's grandfather, Sazo Idemitsu (1885-1981), was one of Japan's most powerful petroleum magnates, and an astute art collector.
"My mom and dad's marriage was based on eloping," Shingo says, by way of introducing his grandfather. "My granddad didn't want my mom to marry one, an artist whose work he collected, and two, someone from the country Japan had just lost a war to. My granddad wrote a whole book about being a true Japanese, you know. He wasn't a total right-winger or anything, but he was very worried about Japan losing its identity, its culture. He was very serious and formal, to most, but he was nice to me. He was my granddad, after all, so I just ran up to him and jumped on him and stuff."
Jumping on formal granddads was fair game, but Francis recalls landing in Tane Matsukata's office on occasion for rowdy behavior on the playground. "She was always very nice, and just asked questions," Shingo remembers. "She didn't scream at me, or make me think she was going to grind me up for dinner. She made me feel like I had let her down. I didn't want to disappoint her."
Where Shingo's penchant for leaping around served him best was on the basketball court. Under the coaching of Takeo Tan, Shingo attended 7:00 a.m. practice sessions along with teammates Taichu Jiang '85, Tai Katoh '85, Matt Carty '85, Matt Joseff '85, Hiro Ohgi '85, and Nobu Hara '85, with hopes of competing in the seventh grade. A few weeks before the end of sixth grade, however, in 1982, Shingo learned that he and Osamu were being sent to the U.S. for the next stage of their education. "I was horrified," Francis says, shaking his head. "Telling everybody [that I was leaving] was traumatic for me and I cried. It really sucked."
As parents know, abrupt moves are hard on kids, but at the same time usually widen perspectives. Francis attended Crossroads in Santa Monica, which, much like Nishimachi International School, emphasized arts and sciences equally. There, perhaps channeling his mother's video skills, Shingo made surf movies in his 8th grade art class, and took up wave-riding himself, which he enjoys to this day. "Surfing is great," he says, sounding like a quintessential Californian. "You get pushed by this huge moving body of water, and then you're out there floating in nature...it's fine."
Throughout high school, Shingo preferred literature to studio arts. "Painting and art were my parents' things," he explains, "and I was tempted by those subjects, of course, but I didn't want to do the same thing as my parents." He found himself instead engrossed in the works of Beatnik poets such as Allan Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and rocking out at concerts given by The Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band. Shingo first noted the connections between poetry and music, and then remarked the continuity between the Beatniks and hippies. This opened his eyes to the sense of art as existing on an interconnected timeline.
When Shingo entered the Hutchins School of Liberal Studies, it was as a creative writing major who favored the abstraction of poetry over narrative stories. However, he soon found that he struggled against the "specificity" of words and their limitations, so when the chance arrived in his second semester to take an art elective, he grabbed it.
Like most college students, Shingo preferred to save what little money he had for going out, so when his art class required that he bring supplies, he raided his father's studio in Point Reyes and bagged up some old, half-used tubes of paint and brushes.
Back at school, he had an "aha moment." "I remember walking into the art studio," he says. "It had big windows and tall ceilings, and the light was so beautiful. It was quiet, and we got out our canvases and colors. When I saw the paints, I thought, 'I know you!'"
Though Shingo had caught a glimpse of his future, his path there was not entirely straightforward. He began with illustration, through a lingering fascination with literary storylines and mythical material. As he moved into his 20s, Shingo then bumped up against the artistic stances of his parents.
His mother, all through his life, took him to art galleries in Ginza, as well as the Hara Museum, museums in Yokohama, and the MOT, and they would discuss the work. "I wasn't so keen on conceptual art, but, for instance, we went to a Jeff Koons show—with its vacuum cleaners, basketballs, and stuff—and nothing was handmade and there seemed to me to be no real effort," he recounts. "My mom explained to me the idea of taking something out of context, which I got, but I also thought that kind of art was a cop-out, so we'd argue about it. She comes from the more Post-Modern view of art."
Sam Francis's influence, on the other hand, was perhaps more saturated and subliminal. Though he too engaged his son in discussions about color and passion, the aspect that remains strongest in Shingo's mind is that during summers in Santa Monica, from the age of about three, both he and his brother were allowed a small corner in Sam's studio. "He gave us paints, as a way to keep us occupied. It was a form of babysitting, but we were with him then."
Shingo endured the classic struggle of all progeny of famous parents. He wondered to what degree he was like them, and to what degree his own man. He recalls experimenting with outlandish works—merely to stand out as different—and conferring with his father's colleagues, who merely shook their heads with sympathy and told him he'd simply have to work through these stages. "It's like a tree being born in a certain environment," Shingo says, "and that tree is its own seedling, but it is affected by where it grows up. I don't want to deny my environment, and so I've learned over the years to embrace it and to be grateful for what I've learned, but at the same time to honor my individuality."
Absorbing influence from such artists as Robert Irwin, Isamu Noguchi, Joe Goode, Ed Moses, and James Turrell, Shingo eventually created a body of work that expresses his engagement with concepts such as "the void," which he defines as those areas of the world that we do not understand or know about, such as death, time, and the future. His work attempts to visually address the general unknown, and how we relate to it. The white horizontal strip of space in many of his current works, according to Francis, "demarcates the boundary between our consciousness and what we're aware of, and that point on the other side that we know nothing about." The thin layers of pigment occasionally lapping up to or dipping into the white void are meant to represent attempts to understand through imagination or knowledge. Francis's darker works, where the central spaces are nearly black, are similar constructs, but address the boundaries between consciousness and the bigger collective unconsciousness.
As we talk about his work, and his New York studio in Bushwick, Brooklyn, Shingo and I naturally gravitate back to the gallery. Once there, he recounts a tale that gives a glimpse into the constant challenges an artist faces. While still working at his Yokohama studio, Shingo was commissioned to do a large work on paper, to be sent to South Carolina.
"I needed to work flat on a wall," he recalls. "I took a 30-foot piece of paper, and using rabbit skin glue, adhered it straight onto the studio's plaster drywall, thinking that I could later warm it up, melt it, and it would peel off. When it was done, I got out the dryer, and a spatula, but the thing would not budge. After ten minutes, I'm like wow, it will NOT MOVE. I made phone calls to art friends and they all said, 'you're just going to have to cut the wall out.' So I got an electric saw, and eight friends to hold it as I sliced though the plaster walls, studs and all, of my city-owned studio. My friends and I lowered it down, then hammered off the dry wall, but the water I'd used while painting had absorbed a lot of glue. So, we had to get spoons, because you couldn't jab at the work, to chip the stuff off. We worked 14 hours a day. Sometimes, you just gotta make it happen. The university kept calling to ask, 'Is everything okay?!' We were like, yeah, yeah, it'll be there soon. The end result was a little wobblier than I wanted, and when we got there, the curator said she thought it had a great, aged feel to it, like it had been through the wringer. I told her, eventually, what happened."
What is it that Shingo Francis wishes his viewers to take away from his work, I ask him, though I am aware it's a complicated question. "I want people to feel something they haven't felt," he answers. "I want them to open up certain passageways that have been blocked, or not felt in a while, and to have a different experience that takes them out of their daily troubles and let's them focus in the present. You know, when you hear music, it's awesome, and you fall into it. When you stand in front a great painting, it's the same, you fall into it." When he adds that he also wants his work to be worth travelling to see, I assure him that it is. He offers up a genuine smile, not a glossed-over response, but I suspect he already knows how to make long journeys well worthwhile.