New Paltz

Zachary Heinzerling, Action Is Art: A Study of Ushio Shinohara’s Boxing Painting, 2012, digital video, color, sound, 5 minutes.

Zachary Heinzerling, Action Is Art: A Study of Ushio Shinohara’s Boxing Painting, 2012, digital video, color, sound, 5 minutes.

Ushio Shinohara

Zachary Heinzerling, Action Is Art: A Study of Ushio Shinohara’s Boxing Painting, 2012, digital video, color, sound, 5 minutes.

When Sonny Rollins shaved his hair into a Mohawk in 1958, he was declaring solidarity with American Indians. When, that year in Tokyo, Ushio Shinohara did the same, it wasn’t clear what the gesture meant. An early drawing (also 1958) in “Shinohara Pops!: The Avant-Garde Road, Tokyo/New York,” the artist’s recent retrospective at the Dorsky Museum, provides a clue. The self-portrait, titled Danmo and Beat Painterdanmo a hip inversion of modan, as in “modern jazz”—shows the artist, hair shaved into a Mohawk, smoking a cigarette in a bar. Hanging behind his funky head like a caption is a poster naming bebop legend Art Blakey.

Shinohara soon became a media star, featured in magazines and on television programs as the “rockabilly painter” and epitome of youth culture’s joie de vivre. He donned hand-wraps or gloves for the cameras, dipped his fists in ink or paint, and began battering sheets of paper and canvas. There are images of the action in the present show, most famously a shot by William Klein from 1961 (and supplemented by Zachary Heinzerling’s recent footage). As for the resultant paintings, only a handful from the past few years are exhibited, as none of the originals survive. French action painter Georges Mathieu’s 1957 Japan tour was no doubt an influence here, as cocurators Hiroko Ikegami and Reiko Tomii highlight in their well-researched catalogue. But they do not examine the cultural significations of boxing itself, a wildly popular sport in Japan at the time, and one that had been an important motif in the Nikkatsu action films, which clearly serve as the mass-culture backdrop to Shinohara’s early work. By this point, boxing, like jazz, would have been strongly associated with African Americans: Might we have on our hands a Japanese “white Negro”?

Shinohara’s sparring with cultural identity continued with his “imitation art,” most famously demonstrated by his multiple remakings of Rauschenberg’s Coca-Cola Plan (1964). Neither of the two extant originals could be secured for the show, so at the Dorsky Museum, the work is represented instead by a flock of re-re-creations that are hung from the walls and ceiling as if in flight. In his legendary 1968 autobiography, Avant-Garde Road (which lends its name to this exhibition), Shinohara describes “imitation art” as “cowardly,” a way to buy time in a world in which the new has been exhausted, while poking fun at Japan for its reputation as a copycat nation.

Given such expressions of impotence, is it a coincidence that around this time Shinohara began making art about sex? This impulse is represented by Okichi Story, 1965, a narrative suite of black-and-white drawings based on a bloody eighteenth-century puppet play about lust and murderous jealousy, rendered as if scrawled on a bathroom stall. Better known are his oiran (or “courtesan”) works, particularly those made between 1966 and 1969, which were inspired by gory kabuki and soft-core prints of the late Edo period. Though they are rather thin idea-wise, little more than ukiyo-e greats processed through the aesthetic fashionable at the time, these mixed-media paintings and silk screens, with their boldly abstract compositions and fluorescent tones, nevertheless liven the Dorsky’s halls. Perhaps a stronger argument could have been made for both series by relating them to the contemporaneous growth, within Tokyo’s underground theater, film, and comics scenes, of the eros-plus-massacre aesthetic.

Shinohara’s move to New York in 1969 seemed to only intensify his taste for the abject as he combined garish colors, expressive lines, and even bits of food to form his hybrid characters—parts Kabuki actor, American superhero, and Hells Angel. It is out of this apocalyptic space, beginning in 1973, that Shinohara produced his “Motorcycle Sculpture” series, choppers of all sizes made of cardboard and resin, customized with plastic bits and jelly beans. The two in the present show carry an ugly oiran and an Ed Roth–type lunatic. “Shinohara Pops!” no doubt builds a solid home for the Japanese septuagenarian in global contemporary art. Yet I see him riding into the sunset of a Gary Panter–esque no-man’s-land—a realm somewhere between Tokyo and Americana, art and subculture.

Ryan Holmberg