LiteratureTeraoka, M., Hoffman, K., Heartney, E., Bing, A., & Clark, C. (2012), Ascending chaos: The art of Masami Teraoka 1966-2006, San Francisco, Calif: Chronicle Books LLC, illustrated
Is this a Japanese antiquity, a centuries old scroll painting? It certainly has all the hallmarks of one but on closer inspection, there are surreal and contemporary aspects such as the tissues symbolizing sexual desire. In fact, this is a work by Japanese American artist Masami Teraoka.
Born in Onomichi in Hiroshima Prefecture, Teraoka studied at what is now Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. His works are inspired by Japanese Ukiyo-e woodcut prints. However, Teraoaka infuses the style and techniques of the traditional art with American Pop Art. The mass-produced nature of Japanese woodcut prints alligns with the obsession with mass production and consumption of Pop Art. Additionally, Ukiyo, meaning “the floating world” in Edo period Japan reflected the transitory nature of Kabuki theater and pleasure houses. This transitory sense of consumerism and pleasure was also evoked in the works by Pop Artists. Teraoka’s works are a collision of two cultures and histories of art finding affinities through similar themes.
Teraoka’s pieces blend humor and social commentary. He has often touched upon subjects as diverse and urgent as the AIDs crises, consumerism, the attacks on September 11th, and more. Teraoka notes of his own work, “Integrating reality with fantasy, humor with commentary, and history with the present became my challenge.”
What is particularly special about this work is that it takes the form of a scroll painting. The tradition of scroll painting reaches back centuries in China where it was then introduced to Japan as a way to spread Buddhism. Hanging scroll paintings have been a central focus of art in China and Japan, a vehicle for a diverse range of artistic expression – visual translations of poetry, meditations on life and death, collaborations between friends – and for a variety of reasons – simple interior decorations, tokens of special relationships, even erotica. The earliest extant erotic scroll in Japan dates back to 1321.
Nevertheless, Teraoka’s piece is not just an emulation or even a simple parody. It is a layered investigation into cultural identity and social issues. The artist seems to resist the call for cultural assimilation, a defiant stance of multiculturalism that is both nuanced and boisterous. It is important to note that this adherence to Japanese identity, particularly in the 1980s, was in the face of a supposed “Yellow Peril” in which American anger turned against Japan’s imagined encroachment into the US’s economy. The blue hue around her eyes and digits suggest a ghost; certain pieces of sushi are ambiguous – is that lovely slice of sushi or a condom in a wrapper? Even the semblance to woodcut prints is a deception. This is a carefully created watercolor, a unique work that blends the absurd with the beautiful, the humorous with the serious.
Works by Teraoka can be found in the Tate Modern, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Walker Art Center, and more.