by Mark Van Proyen
The temporal distance between the pandemic 40 years ago and the one from which we’ve just emerged has given us time to reflect on the global devastation of the AIDS crisis when it was at its peak and California was among its American epicenters. This survey of Masami Teraoka’s work from 1984 to 2008, titled Waves and Plagues Redux, reminds us of those times, inviting a reexamination informed by a post-COVID perspective.
Teraoka attracted significant West Coast visibility during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s by adopting the esthetics and techniques of traditional Japanese Ukiyo-e painting and woodblock printing and combining them with pictorial fragments derived from the most banal and occasionally vulgar aspects of American popular culture. The results of this approach were always suffused with undeniable charm, refined craftsmanship and a good-natured humor, highlighting the absurdity associated with the economic colonization of a deeply revered tradition.
A good early example in the current exhibition, 31 Flavors Invading Japan/French Vanilla IV (1979), depicts a female figure clad in the flowing kimono of a traditional geisha. Her overdramatic body language shows her greedily consuming an ice cream cone while reflecting with visible dismay, her momentary and embarrassing lapse of dignity. It is worth remembering that the Ukiyo-e artists of the Edo-Tokugawa period often depicted the idealized world of actors and courtesans who lived exalted lives as exceptions to the rigidity of their society, something Teraoka comically mirrors by employing in their stead, Hollywood celebrity types who lived near him in Los Angeles before he relocated to Hawaii in 1984.
As the AIDS crisis worsened in the 1980s and early 1990s, the disease and the fraught politics surrounding it proved to be no laughing matter. This explains the somber, melodramatic moods of Teraoka’s large works from a series made in 1990, five excellent examples of which are included here. All quite large and compositionally forthright, deviating from earlier Ukiyo-e stylistics in favor of centrally posed figures evoking official state portraits of shoguns or other high government officials, not to mention the revered emperors of ancient China painted in the older, albeit similar, Gongbi style. The difference is that Teraoka’s figures are not highly placed officials in any government, nor are they recognizable celebrities of any import. They are everyday people clad in Kimono gowns, appearing as if they were personally associated with the artist. Many appear to be sick, evidenced by their exsanguinated pallor and the somber colors of their surroundings. Three such paintings portray mother and child dyads, while a fourth portrays a father and child. The children depicted are all infants, some looking seriously ill or otherwise malnourished, like the one featuring a distraught blond woman clutching her blue-tinged offspring. In other cases, the adult figures are the ones who look vexed by infirmity; witness the parent figure in AIDS Series/Father and Son whose palsied hands look as if they are morphing into rotten claws.
Several examples from Teraoka’s Wave Series offer an ebullient counterbalance to the grim pathos of the AIDS Series. The earliest, New Views of Mt. Fuji/Waterfall Contemplation II (1979), is a horizontally formatted image of cascading water with figures positioned at the corner taking enjoyment from the serenity of the scene. More dramatic are the ebb and flow of surging waves depicted in Waves and Rocks (1986), Study for Wave Series/Molokai Lookout Point (1984) and Waves: Waimanalo Beach (1986-88), where the frothy whitecaps seem to form semi-figural water wraiths representing the spirits that animate them. The obvious reference point for these efforts is Hokusai’s famous 1831 image The Great Wave off Kanagawa. Teraoka’s wave paintings, executed in both watercolor and polychrome woodblock, play off of that familiarity to good advantage by capturing a perfect balance between the frozen stillness of the picture form and the unsettled, perpetual motion of the subject. Where Hokusai’s image is thought to dramatically represent the yin and yang of nature, Teraoka’s Wave images accomplish the same thing in a more lyrical register, elegantly teasing out the analogy between of the flow of water and the flow of time.
One special aspect of this exhibition is the inclusion of a large array of small works and preparatory studies, a few of which look to be related to some of the larger, more complete works on display nearby. These run a gamut from outright doodles and purposeful sketches to finished works executed in an unselfconscious and improvisatory manner. Just as professional magicians guard the inner mechanisms of their illusions, so do certain artists. When their secrets are revealed, as they are here, it’s an opportunity to be savored, one that allows us to see the thinking behind Teraoka’s process, thereby enhancing our appreciation and understanding of it.
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Masami Teraoka: “Waves and Plagues Redux.” A survey of work from 1984 to 2008 @ Catharine Clark Gallery through August 19, 2023.
About the author: Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries emphasize the tragic consequences of blind faith in economies of narcissistic reward. Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America. His recent publications include Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010). To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak’s interview on Broke-Ass Stuart’s website.