The last decade has gained Tomoo Gokita international recognition and popularity, especially among American fine art collectors. Known now for his grayscale paintings, particularly portraiture, Gokita is a master of monochromatic painting and drawing. Let It Be (2008) is a black-and-white portrait of an archetypal male figure. Gokita’s surreal monochrome portraits typically feature stereotypes from popular culture; the Japanese student, salary men, pin-up girls, gagsters, porn stars and actresses feature prominently in these series of works. In each, the figures are rendered surreal. The human identity is erased, with no identifying characteristics of traditional portraits available to give the subjects a name, such as the eyes, ears, nose and mouth. Let It Be has even fewer identifying features portrayed: the subject is shirtless, revealing the top of a torso of an Adonis-like man.
Gokita began his career as an illustrator and graphic designer. Influenced by his father, who worked as a designer for Japan’s largest advertising agency, Gokita was raised in an open-minded household when it came to encountering pop culture imagery, especially the erotic. At a time when Japan outlawed the printing of magazines showing full-frontal nudity, the artist’s father encouraged his son to take in the beauty of the female form in magazines produced by a client of his at the ad agency: Playboy. Gokita describes those vintage erotic spreads as influential in his later work as an illustrator and painter (E. Ng, “One Thousand Shades of Gray: Tomoo Gokita”, Art Asia Pacific, July-August 2015). Also in his early childhood, Gokita began illustrating. Though interested very little in school, he showed interest in learning kanji, Chinese characters used in ancient Japanese. Kanji gave the artist pleasure through exercising visual memorization. Traditional Japanese and Chinese education collided with Western pop culture influence, particularly that of punk and rock music, in the artist’s formative years.
The title of Gokita’s painting, Let it Be, may be interpreted to be a reference to the Beatles. Let It Be is the title of the English rock band’s twelfth and final studio album, released in 1970, as well as a single that reached number one on song charts both in America and the United Kingdom. Before his breakthrough in contemporary fine art, Gokita’s career began through working with rock and punk bands. Despite his success in designing CD and LP art for bands that toured in Tokyo, Gokita quit in the mid-1990s to gain artistic freedom in his work. While monochrome painting was an extension of Gokita’s beginnings in illustration, it was more so an answer to his financial struggles during this time. While saving money on paint colors, Gokita found monochrome painting to be a natural extension of his passion for drawing and kanji (Ibid.). The monochrome drawings and paintings launched him into the New York and Tokyo art scene.
The painting Let It Be is a portrait of a young man, his face rendered completely abstract and unrecognizable. With few identifying features, where the torso is visible suggests a young man with a conventionally attractive build; his muscles, shoulders, neck, and collar bones are highly chiseled. As the work’s title conjures up associations with the Beatles’ album, so does the subject’s hair to the British rock stars. The long curly waves resemble the band members’ tousled manes. Like many of Gokita’s more contemporary creations, the face of Let It Be is rendered very loose and abstract. His complex, often frustrating style of portraiture, and “metamorphosing of the figure into something otherworldly denies viewers the pleasure of looking at a face and simultaneously rousing their imagination at the same time” (Ibid.). This erasure of the human form is a product of the fusion of his identity as a Japanese artist with his exposure to contemporary Western culture and imagery. The collision of identities can be identified in the man’s blurred face: it is messy, complex, dystopian and difficult to express. These emotions in Let It Be are offset by its own title, a phrase which commands a peaceful attitude. When viewing his work in one of the first gallery exhibitions in which he participated, critic Roberta Smith said, “Mr. Gokita’s vocabulary barrels across illustrations, pornography, abstraction, children’s drawing, calligraphy and sign-painting, with a perfect control, velvety surfaces and tonal range that makes black-and-white feel like living color” (R. Smith, "Invading Genres Breach the Art World's Porous Borders," New York Times, 9 March 2005).