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Visual Art: Old Meets New Meets Wow!

Sush Machida
Courtesy Sush Machida
Courtesy Sush Machida

A two-decade retrospective of Sush Machida’s artwork vividly illustrates the evolving ways he has remixed the traditional and the modern.

Colors so bright they ricochet into your eyes, hypnotic patterns that sear the senses: Sush Machida’s paintings catapult Pop Art into the metamodern realm. In Twenty Years in Vegas at Sahara West Library, the telltale markers of Pop Art present themselves — action heroes culled from TV series, packaging shed from consumer culture — but Machida’s work won’t cozy up next to Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans for long. There’s too much irony. Or sincerity. Or both.

The visual and emotional complexity in Sush’s art is partly a by-product of his Japanese-American identity. Born in Japan and trained in Western painting, Sush discovered the visual traditions of his homeland via 19th-century French artists inspired by Japanese woodblock prints. Classic Japanese aesthetic concepts — awe at the transience of life, respect for emptiness that is never really empty, reverence for beauty in imperfection — influenced him in subtle ways. In 1992, at 18, he moved to the U.S. and spent a lot of time on a snowboard. Seven years later, Dave Hickey poached him from Utah State University for UNLV’s Art MFA program. At that point, Sush was making dense, sexualized mixed-media works, collaging nudies onto painted Japanese seascapes with heaping patterns of salacious curves (bodies, water, fish) and dots (nipples) in contrasting colors. Motifs that would later earn his renown — waves, clouds, fauna, and dots — were already in place.

During the early 2000s, Sush’s images underwent pruning. Nudies yielded to stylized action figures or purified nature themes; pictorial density surrendered to negative space. Vibrant planes of color in flattened perspective gained traction, connecting Sush’s work in a cursory way to Japanese Pop artist Takashi Murakami, whose “superflat” compositions in “cute culture” colors, such as candy pink and lemon yellow, earned him international art world cred. Murakami, in reaction to post-WWII decimation, often opts for kitsch subject matter, such as simpering daisies. Growing up a decade later at the height of postmodernism, Sush’s iteration of flat and cute comments on global consumer society by juxtaposing commercial icons, such as M&Ms, alongside Edo-period landscape motifs, such as mountains and water. His radical update of traditional Japanese content often includes suggestions of street art, such as graffiti and stencils.

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In 2007, Hickey included Sush in the internationally acclaimed Las Vegas Diaspora show, in which he exhibited elongated painted panels pinging Japanese decorative screens. Works from this period are a bestiary of stylized beasts and flamboyant fish paired with realistic images of Chanel N°5 perfume bottles, say, or Marlboro cigarette packs, and tagged with SMG (Sush Machita Gaikotsu) “corporate” logos. The jokes — perfume disguises fishy smells, cigarette packs gauge the scale of the catch — amuse the viewer, but the genius of the compositions is in the intricate patterns of dots and lines that combat fixity with movement. The eyes rove, as if they were watching surf lap the shore.

Post- Diaspora, water and clouds swamp Sush’s large-format painted panels as background increasingly becomes foreground, and fish and mountain subjects recede. Hard-edged lines, masked and sprayed in saturated colors, render the fluid dynamics of a sloshing ocean or billowing clouds in nervy contours rippling through space and dramatizing imaginary interference patterns. Paintings in this series are so vibrant it is as if the extrapolated geometry of wind and current were instantaneously bound in a miracle of wired neon. And yet, the patterns won’t stay put — cloud becomes wave becomes sand becomes tree. The oneness of phenomena has a venerable history in Japan, but never has it been expressed with such chromatic verve.

After 2011, Sush’s style shifts away from clean, heavily contoured compositions toward a denser, even gestural, picture plane. In a move optimizing art history bandwidth (Ukiyo-e, Cubism, Surrealism, Pop), Sush paints wooden planks on wood panels painstakingly prepared with 12 coats of matte medium, primer, and gesso so that the organic surface is obscured and artifice reigns. The painted wood grain projects a convincing aura, unnaturally natural. Lines of sea and sky are now sensuous fiber; dots are knots. To the “wooden” surface, he adds saturated color — graffiti sprays or Pollockesque dribbles and smears. In later series, he tops the artificial wood surface with wave patterns that threaten to bury the planks beneath skeins of psychedelic lines. But rather than obscuring the grain, the superimposed patterns, by allusion, extend it.

Sush’s current work continues to push into new terrain, the signature patterns now seemingly spilling out of the composition, curving the corners of the panels and creating shapes. No longer confined to rectangular picture planes, the cloud-wave combo seems freer than ever, as if the artist were riding Hokusi’s boat as it shreds the crest where sea and sky are one. Sush is a long way from Medieval Edo, and then in some ways, not so far. The emotion of his art is primary, carrying it well beyond the legacy of 20th-century Pop, with its dehumanizing ethos, into a less jaded, more hopeful realm. The artifice is there, and celebrated, but so is optimism.

Twenty Years in Vegas, by Sush Machida, March 1 through April 27, Sahara West Library, free, Reception, March 7, 5:30p