by David M. Roth
When it comes to attacking hypocrisy, few contemporary artists do it with as much elan as Masami Teraoka. His painted broadsides, executed in the manner of Edo-era Japanese woodblocks, long ago earned him acclaim for savaging the dirty deeds performed by church and state to crush freedom and human dignity — most notably that of women, AIDS victims and sexual libertines. Teraoka, now in his mid-80s, hasn’t let up. His current exhibition, The Last Swan Lake, in which his work is brilliantly paired with that of sculptor Al Farrow, shows him to be an unrelenting (and sometimes prescient) forecaster of current ills.
The show is comprised of 16 hinged triptychs which take the form of gilded altarpieces. In them, scenes of war figure prominently, as do the face of Vladimir Putin and those of his arch-nemesis, the feminist/Punk Rock performance troupe Pussy Riot.1 In one, Nadya Tolokonnikova, shown scantily clad and bound by a length of rope, speaks by phone to Peter Pavlensky, a performance artist notorious in Russia for public acts of self-mutilation that call out official acts of repression. In one such instance, he sewed his lips shut, which is how he’s portrayed here in a painting titled Pussy Riot Kubie Series/Nadya and Peter. Significantly, the heads of both she and Tolokonnikova are bathed in gold haloes, suggesting a type of sainthood very different than the ones favored by the Russian Orthodox church. Another piece from the same
series shows Putin in 16th-century clerical garb speaking by phone to an unseen Pope Francis. “What kind of bait,” he asks, “do you use to catch rats?” Francis: “You wouldn’t believe it, but we use industrial green soap.” Putin: “You must be Putin me on!” That bit of punning dialog, accompanied by a pair of rodents representing Pussy Riot members snared in a net, is written in Joruri, a 15th-century script associated with Japanese puppet dramas. Apart from a few snippets, which the artist translated and the gallerists shared, the text goes untranslated; it appears cryptic and decorative, in cascades of calligraphic black marks set against red backgrounds. More easily discerned are the folding versos. They carry enlarged views of some of the same imagery seen on the front of each diptych. Ask and the gallerists will unfold them for you.
Overall, the tone of the exhibition is apocalyptic. Evacuation, to take but one example, is all fire and brimstone – evidenced in blazing orange skies, burning buildings, white crosses, menacing fighter jets and tank columns. It’s clearly about Putin’s war against Ukraine, except that the destruction wrought is not that of a wrathful God but of a man behaving like one. In that same painting and several others, ballerinas borrowed from Swan Lake pirouette across urban ruins as if they were stage sets, begging the question: What does Swan Lake have to do with the catastrophe in Ukraine and its appropriation for the title of this exhibition? Its significance, I learned, rests with the fact that when the Kremlin orders blackouts of Russian television, audio transmissions of Tchaikovsky’s score replace the video feeds.
To be clear, the symbolism Teraoka employs in these and other paintings doesn’t apply only to the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Several of the above-described war scenes also contain images of the Titanic plunging over a waterfall and teetering amidst chunks of melting polar ice – a mash-up that conveys the links between war, technological “progress,” irrational optimism and environmental mayhem. Other pictures extend Teraoka’s longstanding fascination with how once-exotic fare like sushi and ramen noodles have become mainstays of western cuisine. In these, the dramatis personae summoned point to even more radical cross-cultural incursions, like the one in 2nd Avenue Ramen Stop/Pussy Riot Baptism where a Black female cleric and a geisha baptize a haloed, masked figure with noodles. More significantly, the artist seems to have forecast the Supreme Court’s impending repeal of Roe v. Wade in two paintings. Reproductive Rights Dungeon II shows two imprisoned half-naked women; Pro-Choice Planned Parenthood situates the same pair on a pyre before a burning building: echoes of the Salem witch trials.
Long-time Teraoka observers may wonder what’s new? Thematically, little. Stylistically, a lot. In the past, when the artist employed ukiyo-e iconography to depict a “floating world” of self-pleasuring geishas, Japanese tourists, lustful clerics, samurai warriors and blonde sexpots awash in the material seductions of
American consumer culture, his art-historical references ranged from Japanese masters Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) and Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865) to western Medieval and Renaissance paintings. Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights (1490-1500) figured prominently. So did the apocalyptic religious paintings of Michelangelo, Signorelli, Giotto and the tortured erotic works of Bernini and Mantegna.2 Vestiges of those sources remain, but the prevailing mood in The Last Swan Lake leans closer toward Neo-Expressionism, seen in fiery atmospherics the artist uses to portray war. Consequently, the jolt once sparked by the Teraoka’s application of an archaic approach to contemporary subjects is diminished, but only a little. The essential frisson of his oeuvre remains.
Al Farrow’s pedestal-mounted sculptures of churches, synagogues, and reliquaries ingeniously crafted from bullet casings, rifle parts and other armaments, while seemingly worlds apart, are ideal complements to Teraoka’s paintings. Where the two artists overlap is in their shared distaste for religion. In published interviews, Farrow has downplayed any such sentiments by attempting to differentiate the sacred aspects of religion from its violent historical legacy, but the precise elegance with which he fiendishly turns his raw materials into credible replicas of actual structures belies that assertion.3 His work continues to shock even after repeated viewings, reinforcing the fact that religion has been used to justify killing and conquest from time immemorial. And that is where the two artists’ messages intermingle and reinforce one another.
In more peaceful times, a double billing such as this would likely be considered heavy-handed, over-the-top. Today, in a morally adrift world overrun by violence, deception and hypocrisy and greed, Teraoka and Farrow seem like perfect companions, spot-on in their respective assessments of the human condition.
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Masami Teraoka: “The Last Swan Lake” and Al Farrow: “New Sculptures” @ Catharine Clark Gallery through May 28, 2022.
The gallery hosts a BOXBLUR event on May 15 to benefit International Rescue Committee’s relief efforts in Ukraine. It includes a performance authored by Pussy Riot’s Victoria Naraxsa.
- At the time of this posting, Maria V. Alyokhina, the leader of Pussy Riot, had just escaped Russia.
- The author thanks Eleanor Heartney for her exceptional essay “Masami Teraoka’s Inferno: Tales for an Era of Moral Chaos.” It appears in “Ascending Chaos: The Art of Masami Teraoka 1966-2006.” Chronicle Books, 2006.
- Squarecylinder reviews of prior Al Farrow exhibitions by Julia Couzens and David M. Roth can be viewed at this link.
About the author: David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.