Masami Teraoka | Cloister's Confessions

Masami Teraoka | Cloister's Confessions

April, 2008

Eros and Thanatos Revisited: The Recent Work of Masami Teraoka
Essay by Peter Clothier 2007

The creative spirit is one of the great distinguishing features of the human species. It pursues, through the imagination, a true liberation of the mind. Artists, poets, musicians, dancers… these are people, for the most part, who are more than usually attuned to the secrets of the human soul, to both the joys and the peculiar anguishes of our human life. They have learned—or learn, in the process of their art—to feel more deeply than most, and this may be why their demand for freedom and their response to repression is even more urgent, more fully human, let’s say, than that of their fellow beings. It is not easy for a creative mind to address the stream of external events that most affect our lives. There are risks involved—most notably the risk of the artwork descending into that kind of preachiness and topicality that will condemn it to irrelevance as pressing current situations pass into history. Most artists, though, are driven to make art “for the ages,” art that will speak to future generations of human beings about our own time, and about the humanity we hope to share with them—should our planet survive our current abuses for so long!

For there is sadly much in our present day cultural and political life to wrench the heart, and it seems from his painting that Masami Teraoka is immune to none of it. As a cultural transplant in the early 1960s, he brought with him to America a peculiarly Japanese sensibility and awareness, and he examined the indigenous social and aesthetic environment with a wryly amused and sometimes critical Japanese eye. Long before most of us became aware of the problems inherent in what we have come to identify as “globalization,” Teraoka was busy making those deservedly famous, delightfully irreverent images of McDonald’s Hamburgers and Baskin and Robbins’ 31 Flavors invading Japan. His geisha and samurai were evidently enchanted by the transplanted American toxins, consuming them—or being consumed by them?—with unmistakable relish. Teraoka often included himself in these paintings as a wily co-conspirator, impishly complicit in the devil’s bargain between two cultures, one venerable and ancient, the other brash and new—the latter too naïve and too full of itself to understand the consequences of its actions in the world. On the other side—the side of the angels in the 1960s, if we are to judge by the joyfully erotic exuberance of Teraoka’s paintings of that time—was the sexual revolution pioneered by American youth in that vibrant, culture-changing decade. The artist’s impeccably skillful, delicate watercolors brought the traditions of such Edo period masters as Kunisada and Hokusai to bear on the new freedoms of the time here in the U.S. Yet even his pleasure-oriented themes of that time were often slyly interwoven with deceptively seductive manifestations of the dark, consumerist side of the contemporary world in the form of lustfully fellatiable ice cream cones and slurpable noodles. Mouths, we can’t help but note, featured prominently in that period of Teraoka’s work, as did their metaphorical counterparts, the lips of the vagina. The dread disease of consumerism was equated with the sexuality and eroticism at the heart of human intercourse.

That was then. Now, decades later, Teraoka continues to work the themes of freedom, exploitation and repression, but more darkly. Things have changed, and in many ways not for the better in our society. First to attract the artist’s attention was the scourge of HIV/AIDS—the outcome, in part, of the sexual revolution he had previously delighted in. Condoms were soon replacing those ice cream cones as trademark images in his paintings, as Teraoka began to realize the grave consequences of “unprotected sex,” a sadly paradoxical term that was to become a catch-phrase amongst the inheritors of sexual hedonism. The paintings became distinctly darker in their tonality. Exuberance was replaced by the evocation of the same fear that accompanied the modern plague that by now, in the 1970s, was taking so many lives in America and was soon to become a world-wide pandemic. Eros and Thanatos, inseparable throughout the history of humankind, were still bound together in ecstatic embrace.

Little doubt, then, that the AIDS crisis was a turning point for Teraoka in his vision as an artist, nor that its implications helped open his heart to the countless other wounds we have inflicted upon ourselves in recent years. These are too many to list fully, but they would certainly include the abuse of religious and spiritual aspirations to grab temporal power and enforce control on others, to justify violence, war, and the brutal repression of women, and to deny the benefits of science and reason to our human species. High on the list would also be the flagrant transgression of time-honored customs and laws that protect us and our fellow human beings from arbitrary persecution, imprisonment and torture; and the ominous signs of the surrender of human intimacy to the seduction of technological advances. The global reach of electronic communications and their impact on our lives have obvious appeal for Teraoka’s playful intellect and for his visual curiosity, and yet his recent paintings—with their jumbles of cables, keyboards, monitors and mice—invoke the threat of Big Brotherstyle intrusion in our lives and warn of consequent dehumanization.

All this Teraoka has observed, and he has not allowed himself to ignore it, despite accepted aesthetic dogmas that have dictated the direction of much contemporary art. To delve into any one of his paintings from the past decade is to be confronted by the complexity and the co-dependence of these issues that define the conflicted spirit of our times, our Zeitgeist. For this artist, this is at once a personal, ethical choice and an aesthetic one. Bringing with him the power and beauty of those Japanese traditions, he arrived at the threshold of creative maturity at the time of Pop Art in America, and took to heart the example of the astute cultural awareness of such artists as Warhol and Wesselman, Rosenquist and Lichtenstein; a newly arrived Californian, he also took note of the artists in that brash young mecca who were incorporating aspects of popular West Coast culture—shiny automobile finishes and other forms of surface glow and glitter—in their work. I think, for example, of artists like Craig Kaufman, Dewain Valentine, Peter Alexander and Billy Al Bengston. Starting out, Teraoka himself made work that was consistent with those two parallel aesthetics. Even then, he seems to have determined that his job as an artist was to take a healthily skeptical look at the world about him, and to hold up a mirror to the culture of his time. In defiance of modernist conventions, “art for art’s sake” was foreign to his nature and artistic heritage.

If the process of “westernization” in Teraoka’s art began with AIDS, by the early 1990s his artist’s eye was to rediscover an aesthetic context in which to frame his work in the religious art of the Medieval and Renaissance periods of European art. It was no coincidence, of course, that he also began to find in the paternalistic, authoritarian control of Catholicism the source of many of the evils he was observing in the contemporary world about him—not to mention the joyless, Puritanical literalism of certain American religious denominations and, later, the fanaticism of Islamic extremists. If he still mines this vein in the current work that emerges from his studio, it is because he continues to find it rich with the kind of ore he’s processing: for Teraoka, I believe, the practice of art is all about the struggle for human freedom from all forms of oppression, and the newest of his paintings are rich in this material, indeed. Far from restricting themselves to single themes or issues, they unflinchingly address our culture as a whole, conflating them, often, into an apocalyptic vision in the tradition of the great Hieronymous Bosch.

“Semana Santa/Cloisters Workout” (2004) is an excellent example. In stark contrast to the earthly paradises (think of those Hawaiian ocean vistas, for example) evoked in some of his earlier work, this painting offers the vision of an earthly hell. As does much of Teraoka’s recent work, it manifestly—impudently!—appropriates the moral authority of the Renaissance masterpiece tradition by borrowing the convention of the six-panel altarpiece. Each panel is elaborately framed in gold, but here the historical and spiritual context is established not by the institution of the church and its sacred rituals and narratives, but by the touchstone event of the World Trade Center attacks. The cataclysmic, defining moment of our current history is here recalled in the top three panels, where fiery skies are filled with jet liners threatening sketchily evoked city skylines. Below, an assortment of bishops, priests, inquisitors and other clerics is engulfed by the power of provocative female sexuality, perversely activated by their prurient meddling. In the lower panels, much the same scenario is re-enacted, the fires of hell barely contained behind barred cloister windows. The horrified, mitered bishops in the foreground are crushed by the female presence, caught in the moral morass of their own hypocritical concupiscence. And the women, whose sexual power provides the central energy of the painting, seem despite their efforts unable to findeven temporary “salvation” in the cultural fad of the physical workout. It’s a vision of lost human souls, enslaved to the debauchery to which their natural instincts and desires have been perverted by a culture of mutually destructive judgment, rage and fear.

The narrative of newer paintings like “The Cloisters/Ponte Vecchio Quail Hunt” (2007) pick up this theme, though with a greater element of satirical mockery. Here, in the center panel, the shotgun blast (aimed quite precisely between the thighs of the central figure, who offers her buttocks—not untypically in a Teraoka painting—provocatively to the viewer) and the wounded birds to left and right are a clear reminder of the farcical quail hunt in which Vice President Dick Cheney’s badly mis-aimed shot tore into the cheek of a fellow-hunter. The “wrong target” chosen by the Cheney stand-in, here doubling as a senior cleric, is clearly female sexuality itself. This deathly suggestion is contrasted, in the left panel, by the undisguised glee with which a geisha discards her bra and panties, and by the seminarian, to the right, who succumbs to the temptation of the woman in his arms. Meanwhile, the disembodied, blue “hand of God” (Teraoka’s own characterization) interrupts the gray-faced cardinal’s unwelcome attentions to a second geisha with the offer of a banana—a fruit whose shape and volume leave little doubt as to its intended reference. In all the moral confusion here, we are humorously reminded that God was also the creator of the male organ and—in the words of “Genesis””—saw that it was good. To which we might add, fruitful, too.

While Teraoka’s ashen clergy—from Pope to cardinal to priest and humble seminarian— seem on the surface to be all about the control of human impulses and our all-too-natural proclivity for “sin,” the artist easily turns the table on this fake agenda by revealing it for what it is: recent history has disgracefully disclosed it as no more than a cover for the church’s own dogmatic sexual repression, and for the consequent abuse of innocents entrusted to the pastoral care of its ministers. In sexual terms, this obsession with control is expressed in the kind of sado-masochistic perversion that pervades this and other paintings, where whips, chains and ropes abound, and where buckled leather wear, restraints and thongs adorn the bodies of predators and victims alike. Hoods, masks and robes disguise the human bodies of the clerics, which they pretend to revile; and the slash marks, oozing blood, that deface so many of the women’s bodies, recall the church’s historical use of torture and violence to enforce its codes. (Appearing, as well, in architectural details throughout the paintings, these slashes serve to remind us of the impermanence of all things, even art. Every artifact, Teraoka suggests, is as vulnerable as the human flesh to the ravages of time and entropy.)

One of the effects of this dogmatic repression of the most natural of human impulses is found, in Teraoka’s work, in the satirical confusion of the sexes. Women, typically, are predominant in the paintings. They are depicted usually as the powerful sex, even in their nakedness and victimhood. At times, their pregnant bellies thrust out as a defiant reminder of the primal, creative purpose of human sexuality, and offer a poignant contrast to the barren, purposeless infertility of priestly sado-masochism. In mockery of the repressed male energy of the clerics, Teraoka’s women are at times masculinized by the addition of male genitalia in the form of dildos, candles, or snakes emerging from between their thighs, while men—particularly those clerics— are often emasculated, presented as startled, grim with fear and inhibition, gray of flesh, deprived of all the normal signs of healthy human vitality. Adding to this mix, the ubiquitous references to Viagra, sex change, C-section birth procedures and an array of sex-related medical paraphernalia suggest the embrace of technology at the expense of nature.

In Teraoka’s work, we are exiled from the Garden of Eden of innocent human impulses and pleasures. It is surely no coincidence that the artist and his wife, Lynda, are represented as terrified, side-lined onlookers in the Botticelli-inspired “Birth of Venus” (2004-05), in a pose that strongly recalls the famous image of the naked John Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono, where this superstar rock icon is shown seeming to yearn for the return to a state of primal innocence.

If Teraoka’s recent paintings offer a bleak picture of the Zeitgeist of our contemporary world, however, it is also one that is thankfully always leavened by Teraoka’s genuine good nature, his wry sense of humor, and a belief in the incipient goodness at the heart of the human experience. He gleefully turns convention on its head, for example, in the recent “The Cloisters/Eve’s First Halloween” (2007). At the center of this parody of conventional masterpiece images of the holy family, the artist cheerfully usurps for himself the traditional role of Mary, with his new daughter Eve as the baby Jesus held in front of him. In the role of Joseph, the pregnant Lynda—still shown here in her prenatal glory—is shown standing protectively above the father and daughter pair. Costumed for Halloween by her impious parents as the Pope (in “real life”, the baby Eve actually won “Honorable Mention” in the “Most Creative” category in the local costume competition) the tiny girl naughtily suggests a future in which women may be consecrated as the church’s highest pontiff, and in which the twin specters of intimidation and abuse (as depicted in the panels to each) will finally be dispelled.

It is at moments such as these that we perceive some glimmer of Teraoka’s hope for a better, less repressive world for his daughter to inherit—a world in which she may be able to live out the truth of who she is without fear or hindrance from those who seek to impose their own dark vision on the rest of the human species. For this artist, as I see it, this is above all a deeply emotional and spiritual quest. If those artists of earlier times whose socially requisite task was to purvey the message of Catholicism have not been discredited by the passage of time, it is because they spoke to us at this level of human experience. For this reason, they continue to speak to us of fundamental truths about our human condition, the inner life of the mind, and its struggle to comprehend the ultimate mysteries of life and death. For Teraoka, too, his practice as a painter is only in small part about his perception of evils of this world. More importantly, it’s about looking into his own heart and reporting what he finds there. In doing so, he invites us into the depths of the eternal human heart, where we find a true reflection of our selves.

© Peter Clothier, 2007