This artist paints Chinatown and Etobicoke in the style of the Old Masters
In his new exhibition, Light Passage, painter Keita Morimoto turns Toronto’s cityscapes into uncanny alternate realities. His works look like someone else’s dream—you recognize the pho shops and graffitied buildings, but they seem softer and warmer. Each painting shows affection for downtown’s gritty scenes, finding romance in the ugliest parts of city life: cold walks home, gas stations, underground parking. The scenes are rare, quiet moments without the distractions of traffic or crowds.
Morimoto, a Japanese-born, Toronto-based artist, is known for his classical style and theatrical use of light. He begins his process by creating abstract inkblot sketches in his studio, before hunting for real-world settings that seem to mirror the sketches in composition. From there, he photographs the scene and paints it, using the image as a reference. Separately, he photographs his friends in his studio and paints them into the scene as well.
We asked Morimoto about some of our favourite paintings in the show, on display until March 3 at Nicholas Metivier Gallery.
This scene at Spadina and Dundas brought to mind one of Morimoto’s inkblot sketches perfectly. “The streetcar came, and the door opened, and it was the perfect scene. The colour relationships and the light silhouetted the streetcar—to me, it was a moment that I had to capture.”
Morimoto tries to avoid putting logos in his work. He removed the brand of this gas station, located at Islington and Dundas, which would have had a prominent place in this piece. “I once left a McDonald’s logo in another piece because it was so small and abstract, though.”
Morimoto was driving around Mississauga when he found this shrine in a strip mall complex. “There were strange rock sculptures,” he says. “It looked like a horror movie scene with no one in the parking lot.”
The three subjects in this piece are all Morimoto’s friends: the painter Megan Ellen MacDonald, Morimoto’s partner, is in the foreground. They were all superimposed onto the background scene of Pho Hung, in Chinatown, which Morimoto liked because it looked like the diner in Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks.
The small silhouette figure is meant to be Morimoto’s friend, who was with Morimoto in Chinatown when he took the photo. “I don’t know if this store was open, but it looks like you’re not supposed to enter, even though there’s a sign to get dim sum. The building seems haunted.”
“When I finished this painting, I really liked the busy look,” he says. At the time, he was obsessed with Jeff Wall’s photography and busy Chinatown signs, and he wanted to achieve that cluttered quality in this scene, Pho Pasteur at Dundas and Spadina. “I tend to simplify images so that they flow more naturally and it’s easier to look at, but for this image I wanted to create decrepitness.”
This is a cheap parking spot on Dundas, just east of Spadina, hidden underground. “Chinatown is chaotic—colourful with random city planning. I wanted to capture that quality in paintings.”
This is an abandoned house next to Kipling Station. “No one goes in or out. It’s just standing there, and looks very beautiful when the sun is setting.” Like the shrine, it gave Morimoto a horror-movie vibe. “In Toronto, so many buildings are being demolished and condos are going up, but this house has survived.”