Los Angeles

Masami Teraoka

Samuel Freeman

“Where to begin?” was the first question prompted by this dense selection of paintings produced between 1997 and 2007 by the Japanborn, Hawaii-based Masami Teraoka—his first Los Angeles gallery presentation in twenty years. The next question was something along the lines of, “Do I even want to take this on?” given that Teraoka was essentially bombarding the viewer with variations on a prevailing theme: The world is heading to hell on a jet. Aircraft did in fact turn up, and were a clear reference to the September 11 attacks, in Teraoka’s 2004 painting Semana Santa/Cloisters Workout; it quickly became apparent that in this exhibition, with its imagery of computers, cell phones, fitness clubs, burkas, Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, and pervert priests, Teraoka meant to speak of the “now.” But as with the artist’s past work, in which he used Japanese Edo-period imagery and aesthetics to frame East-West culture clashes and epidemics including aids and McDonald’s, Teraoka here filtered a contemporary image stream through various past styles and approaches, this time with obvious nods to Renaissance artists including Duccio, Fra Angelico, Masaccio, and Botticelli; the proto-Surrealist Bosch; and the Weimar satirists George Grosz and Max Beckmann.

Done up in leather, lace, or velvet, the players in Teraoka’s cabaret of the damned perform, in epic-scale panoramas and on multipanel altarpieces in gilt frames, acts of deviance, hypocrisy, cruelty, and brutality amid hordes of animals, rising flames, and gothic and Romanesque architecture. The figures routinely have a skin quality, impressively mastered by Teraoka, that suggests both the glow of life and the decay of death—an appearance akin to both the effect of solarization in photography and depictions of the undead by Bosch and Goya. The lighting and composition, meanwhile, are reminiscent of both Mannerist and Baroque painting and of theatrical staging: These scenes could have been choreographed by either Pontormo or Bob Fosse.

Interpreting artworks in terms of “correctness” can be a tricky prospect, leading as it can to didacticism and an embrace of mediocrity. But when an artist opens the door to issues of morality as widely as Teraoka does, one can’t help but step inside. The more you examine Teraoka’s complex compositions, the more you wish they were more complex pictures, especially with regard to the relationship between gender and power. Here, women are variously Venus, virgin, vixen, victim, mother, nun, temptress, whore, or disease carrier—roles that are often signified by their attributes: pregnant bellies, bald heads, heaving bosoms, leather or lace garments. Occasionally in Teraoka’s depictions a woman throws on a uniform and accepts a low-paying job as an airport screener, or takes a break from modeling lingerie to try on a suicide bomber’s belt. Meanwhile, the men, while sure to fare poorly in the hell of which these paintings are a preview, enjoy an array of appointments and professions—doctor, businessman, policeman, pontiff, politician, even president. Perhaps Teraoka is offering an accurate picture, or an astute satire, of the world as it is, but it also seems that in some way he has fallen prey to the same sort of thinking he might wish to parody and protest.

Christopher Miles