The Arts
March 7-13, 2007

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'31 Flavors Invading Japan/Today's Special'

Ice Cream Dream: Masami Teraoka bridges East and West in '31 Flavors Invading Japan/Today's Special.'


At Palo Alto Art Center and in a new book, Masami Teraoka goes global on the traditional Japanese woodblock print

By Michael S. Gant

WORLDS COLLIDE in the works of Japanese-American artist Masami Teraoka. A samurai warrior, top-heavy with a bag of golf clubs, plunges down a sheer cliff. An American businessman in a kimono unclasps his briefcase while his counterpart, wearing a Western three-button suit but sporting a traditional shaved pate and topknot, clutches a fax machine.

In a contemplative print that at first glance looks like an early-19th-century work, a rustic broom made of bundled bamboo branches dancing with delicate crescent-curving leaves sweeps up a discarded sesame bun, congealing meat patty and crumpled wrapper. The title—McDonald's Hamburgers Invading Japan/Burger and Bamboo Broom—is superfluous.

Teraoka, a satirist of the first rank and an artist imbued with extraordinary technique, is the subject of new shows at the Palo Alto Art Center and the Catharine Clark Gallery in San Francisco, as well as a meaty new coffee-table retrospective with three in-depth analytical essays, Ascending Chaos, from Chronicle Books.

The Palo Alto show concentrates on Teraoka's modern take on the Japanese art of ukiyo-e.

These intricate prints, made from multiple carved blocks for each of many colors, chronicled the demimonde of the brothel and theater, the so-called "floating world," or ukiyo, and flourished during the Edo period, from the early 1600s to the mid-1800s. Although ostensibly celebrating dalliance and delicious decadence, ukiyo-e came with a melancholy undercurrent—the good times must end some day; life is a passing fancy. The exhibit pairs some excellent examples by master artists Yoshitoshi and Hokusai with a varied sampling of Teraoka's works in the style.

In the late 1960s and the 1970s, Teraoka, as part of a West Coast pop-art style, celebrated the floating world of the sexual revolution. Mimicking in watercolors the woodblock process, Teraoka delights in East-West encounters that played with taboos in transitions.

In Venice Nude Beach/Woman and Bicycle (reproduced in Ascending Chaos), the artist paints himself as a kimonoed voyeur (his source can be seen in Playing the Flute by Moonlight, a print by Yoshitoshi at the Palo Alto show) twisted up and flustered by the sight of a bathing beauty who is casually disrobing, her bikini top wafting through the air in his direction. Other prints from this period went all the way into the kind of explicit erotica that was originally created only for private viewing.

Working in both watercolor and actual woodblock and screen printing, Teraoka demonstrates a remarkable knowledge of the ukiyo-e. His prints come complete with cartouches and elaborate titles, puns and even dialogue rendered in gorgeous (if inaccessible to the non-Japanese expert) calligraphy.

The Art Center's Waves/Waimanalo Beach, a large watercolor and Sumi ink piece on a paper scroll, demonstrates Teraoka's debt to Hokusai and his famous Great Wave from Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji. The white curlicues of foam dance over hillocks of rolling blue waves advancing on a beach. This is a relatively calm landscape for Teraoka—there is no trembling raft of endangered fisherman in the breakers.

He is, however, more in his element jamming together modern consumerism with visions of the past in witty suites such as the LA Sushi Series and 31 Flavors Invading Japan. Many of these pieces play like lighthearted versions of the globalized dystopian L.A. in Blade Runner.

In Tokyo Sushi Leftover, the artist himself scowlingly confronts a tray of less than appetizing sushi, including a whole fish head sticking straight up and staring at him. He reaches for a crumpled napkin, often used as a discrete symbol for the fluid cleanup after sex. The sexual urge in Today's Special (a 35-color print!) is palpable as a blonde with a kimono falling off her shoulder prepares to tongue a melting scoop of ice cream. Again, a tissue waits to absorb the gooey overflow.

In the sometimes downright hilarious McDonald's Hamburgers Invading Japan series, the dynamic moves in the other direction. In Tokyo Ginza Shuffle, a parade of dainty high-sandaled female feet, peeping and hiding under the swirling hems of their kimonos, traverse a blank, dun-colored field, marred by one cheeseburger and two french fries.

Teraoka, who has lived for years in Hawaii, the halfway point for this trans-Pacific exchange program, shows that everyone loosens up when they test out the surf. In the New Wave and Hawaii Snorkel series, male bathers ogle liberated lasses in thong bathing suits bearing phallic snorkels. In Kunisda Eclipsed, the venerable, wizened artist ventures into the sea with his brushes and paper accompanied by a fully robed geisha. Toward the horizon, the kind of formal boating party often seen in Edo prints braves an impending storm. Kunisada, however, has eyes only for the bare moon of a girl bending at the waist and obscuring his view of the solar eclipse.

In the 1980s, Teraoka, like everyone else from the free-love era, had to confront the specter of AIDS. His prints and watercolors explicitly address the epidemic, with frequent images of condoms, the talisman of protection. In New Wave Series, Eclipse Woman, a tattooed scuba girl with a fashionably short hairdo stands by a wave-beaten shore with trying to tear open a package of rubbers with her teeth.

The Palo Alto show features two magnificent horizontal watercolors from the AIDS Series: ghostly maidens from Japanese folklore surround a man who holds aloft a gigantic semen-filled condom against a backdrop of clouds forming skull shapes (Kanzashi Pond); a skeletal apparition hovers over a woman unfurling a sinuous condom like a banner from her head through her fingers and toes (Snake Wrap)—a race against death.

In the late '90s, Teraoka looked to an even older Western painting tradition for inspiration, picking up the apocalyptic vision of Hieronymous Bosch. Working in watercolor on large canvases and oil on canvas in gold-leaf, arched borders like altar pieces, Teraoka is now creating extremely disturbing narrative allegories about the agonies of our modern world. In many of these paintings, naked bodies are trussed, torn and bloodied, pecked at by vultures, brutalized by priests (the warped sexuality of the Catholic pedophilia scandals figures large in these works) wrapped up in computer cords (Adam and Eve/Surge Protector and Mouse Trap, reproduced in Ascending Chaos). For Teraoka, high tech looks like a step backward to medieval barbarism.

In the extraordinary triptych Semana Santa/Cloning Eve and Geisha, in the permanent collection of the San Jose Museum of Art, three pairs of giant nudes, Western and Japanese, their bodies marked by surgical wounds, hover over Venice during what looks like some kind of horrific auto-da-fé, with hooded inquisitioners scurrying through the streets hunting for heretics. The action takes place against a sky so golden it seems to be on fire.

At times, these excoriating images, which are the focus of the Catharine Clark exhibit, are so full of flagellation and suffering that you miss Teraoka's older, blissful floating world. It is as if the artist, who started out like another happy hedonist of the '60s, R. Crumb, had ended up in one of the sadistic Captain Piss Gums orgies of S. Clay Wilson.

In the other gallery at the Palo Alto Art Center there is a related exhibit called "Actor! Actor!" with a fascinating and eclectic display of theatrical accoutrements from East and West. The show ranges from a Chinese Opera robe and Balinese and Noh theater masks to Indonesian shadow puppets. From the Western tradition, there are articulated harlequin figures, a lithographed sheet to be used as a toy theater, and a page from the London Illustrated News of 100 years ago showing pantomimes in action.

The real discovery is Rick Araluce, a designer for the Seattle Opera, who creates miniature sets for imaginary productions inside tiny shadow boxes. The series is called The Slow Turning of the Night, and the pieces are full of the film noir dread the title implies. In one battered frame, a dilapidated stove is shoved up against a wall under a metal fume hood; to the right, a bare cord dangles from the ceiling, while mysterious burn marks stain the wall beneath a heater vent. In another box, the ghostly image of a human figure is smudged into a white wall (perhaps the aftertrace of spontaneous combustion). These spooky little boxes would make David Lynch very happy, I suspect.

Correspondence: Masami Teraoka & Ukiyo-e and Actor! Actor! run through April 29 at the Palo Alto Art Center, 1313 Newell Road, Palo Alto. (650.329.2366)

Ascending Chaos: The Art of Masami Teraoka by Alison Bing, Eleanor Heartney and Kathryn A. Hoffmann; Chronicle Books; 244 pages; $60 cloth

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