San Francisco

Masami Teraoka

Iannetti Lanzone Gallery

Masami Teraoka is known for making funny, dextrous paintings on themes of bicultural imbalance. Done mostly with watercolors in a style evoking ukiyo-e woodblock prints, his burlesques work like certain New Yorker cartoons or the visual puzzles with captions that read, “What’s wrong with this picture?” One might leave them at that, except for their ever more complicated esthetic, narrative, and moral fascinations, which recall the equally puzzling, oriental side of Pieter Brueghel. Even as quick hits, they’re not trivial.

Ukiyo-e prints are small and square, their colors having been applied with water-based pigments mixed with rice paste. Teraoka’s paintings tend toward bigness; the biggest are on canvas, the medium-sized ones on paper. None are square, and all are made alla prima, with few corrections showing. The earlier works comment mostly on discrepancies between ancient and modern; more specifically, between a homegrown tradition and the contemporary fast lane that respects no place in particular. In one example seen here, a rustic, leafy bamboo broom descends upon a Big Mac and its crumpled wrapper as if to reclaim the environment, which looks to be all atmosphere in various tan and blue tints. The inherent grace of the garden whisk and airheaded grossness of the burger bun make the triumph of simplicity over schlock appear like no contest.

A lot more is involved in Teraoka’s new pictures, especially the ones dealing with AIDS and lust. In them, his conventional lapidary manner, with its unconventional inversion of techniques, retains its former crispness, but a coarser handling of shapes coincides with the subject matter. When Teraoka paints unencumbered sexual energy as an emollient surge and the AIDS panic as its imperative counter force, he might as well be setting Shakespeare’s “Th’expence of spirit in a waste of shame” to pantomime. In Hanauma Bay Series/Octopus and Woman at Sandy Beach, 1988, a courtesan and sleepy-eyed giant squid tumble from the breakers in a coital sprawl. The glooming, polymorphous beast upon the dazed female is "lust in action”—a sort of Peaceable Kingdom version of the Rape of Europe.

Some of the same elements recur in the “AIDS Series,” 1988, but there the erogenous surf has changed to a gruesome hell-mouth’s lava flow in which exasperated women like crimped swans tear at condom wrappings with their teeth. AIDS Series/Dody and Fox, 1988, shows an upstream-straining nude encircled by snakes and a ratlike trickster fox. (Ambiguously, the fox’s long salt-and-pepper mane resembles the one seen in the artist’s numerous self-caricatures.) Tale of a Thousand Condoms/Mates, 1989—another, larger painting set in the back of a London taxi—expands upon two lovers’ grotesque sexual postponement amid a maelstrom of protective devices and admonitions voiced in an Edo-Period script. Some of the lettering, of a kind traditionally used for stage directions in Kabuki theater, annotates the presence in the picture of “a spermicide for women. Anti-Pregnancy, Anti-AIDS. The product is transparent, water-soluble and comes 10 sheets to a package for £1.44.” Such allegories are forceful enough—they’re both packed-in and magnetized at every stroke—to satisfy their cautionary impulse while bursting all preassigned topical seams. Image by image, Teraoka is creating what Edwin Denby (referring to Kabuki) called “the spell of a fabulously esthetic comic strip.”

Bill Berkson