The Cloisters/Arrezo Converters
Oil and gold leaf on panel in gold leaf frame | 60 x 64 7/8 x 1 7/8 inches | 2014
Bridging Life and Art
with Mike Foldes, Founder and Managing Editor
Ragazine: Thank you very much for agreeing to this e-interview, and for allowing us to share your unusual and thought-provoking (if not controversial) work with Ragazine readers. Most of the paintings included in your online portfolio are in the style you have developed blending the influences of both classical Japanese Ukiyo-e or wood block print tradition, and Christian iconography. Can you tell us a little about your painting before this style evolved, and what led you to it?
Masami Teraoka: While (Marcel) Duchamp’s conceptual art had been discussed when I was going to Otis Art Institute, I had thought this early on that I wanted to pursue a vision that was totally of anti-trendish LA art scene. While I was absorbing new energy from Pop Art, I said to myself re: content-wise, these inspiring artists such as Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol, Tom Wesselmann, and (Roy) Lichtenstein made great sense. Basically what they were saying had been about consumerism culture in US.
Since I always had been fascinated by Ukiyo-e wood block print and it’s beautiful vocabulary coming from Japanese cultural background, what if I use my favorite vocabulary to create my work. I could make comments on Japanese culture and US culture in Ukiyo-e style work. I stayed with the vocabulary until the huge thematic series evolved, the Catholic Church’s historical clergy sex abuse. As I grew out from Ukiyo-e theme work, the next major evolution came with the concept that is all about history of western culture and current social issues. Although the basic approach toward my vision was strongly based on freedom of expression to investigate classical vocabularies and explore how far I can push the boundary of the ignored or totally abandoned vocabulary in the ‘60s, why not explore this path instead of focusing on breaking boundaries of materials and expressions. Classical vocabularies could give you enormous inspiration; perhaps, I thought… in order to tackle Catholic clergy sex abuse, I regrouped my thought about the medium and vocabulary.
There had been another inspiration, sort of a backward way – coming from the close association with Gutai Group in Japan. I used to live within a few blocks away from Jiro Yoshihara, the Gutai leader’s residence in Ashiya city. I often visited his son Michio Yoshihara, my buddy who was a Gutai Group member. We often got together for Mishio’s group jam sessions. I closely watched what Gutai had been doing and what the Gutai’s spirit was all about. This is a good way to start my freedom of expression concept, or vision. Gutai Group’s attitude was whatever you are inspired by, you do it with unconventional materials and take it freely to express in an unconventional approach, to express their feelings. I had lived through my college student time with the close associations, or perhaps closest associations, with them; it was great to learn what was going on in the USA. Gutai Group often had referred to Jackson Pollock, Sam Francis and Anthony Tapies. In fact I had met Sam Francis and Tapies in Ashiya city where he gave a public speech.
In fact one of the most significant and important Gutai Group’s performances, called “Happening,” was held at the Sankei Kaikan Theater in Osaka. I was asked to assist Michio’s concrete music for the happening’s background. In retrospect, I can describe it as John Cage-inspired sound effects for the background audio effect. Recently I was interviewed by Ming Tang who had co-curated a huge Gutai Group show in the Guggenheim. She visited me and I had given her Gutai Group’s catalogs that I had treasured for centuries. While I was growing up, I had such great opportunity to see what Gutai Group had been doing as to their own things, and in the meantime I was nurturing my own vision to evolve.
New Wave Series/Sarah and Dream Octopus
Watercolor on paper | 20-1/16 x 29-7/8 | 1992
Q: Many traditional Japanese works portray waves, and you creatively elaborate on that with your Wave Series and New Wave Series. Do you plan on doing anything influenced by the waves that led to the meltdown at Fukushima?
A: I’m not sure, but the inspiration for the waves theme were inspired by two reasons. I was trying to get used to being in the water. Since I moved to Hawaii, I was inspired to learn to swim. I actually had almost drowned when we had the field trip to Momoshima island. Shortly after that incident, I decided to be an artist. It was more like there were personal reasons that I was ready to teach myself swimming. The wave paintings I created are all about my respect for the friendly Hawaiian ocean.
Although Fukushima tsunami was horrendous, I think natural disasters may not have the same sort of personal complexity that I had been struggling with for ages regarding the fear of drowning. Plus, waves became my helping hand to deal with the AIDS theme painting series. It helped me to balance out the emotional issues. Social implications and historical edges as regard humanity issues always compelled me to paint, and I have wondered about this myself. I tend to be drawn toward humanity (and how people are) caught in complex cultural webs.
Q: What were your paintings/drawings like before your present “style” evolved?
A: My drawings/paintings are as precisely and closely inspired by Ukiyo-e woodblock prints, because they are stunning, fantastic and expressive! Beautifully drawn and articulate. Their vocabulary had a lot to do with the skills of artists who conceive figurative themes in abstract ways. Such transformation inspires me.
Drawings done by Ukiyo-e artists articulated unique narratives. Ukiyo-e artists’ strength is inspired by Kabuki stories. They considered themselves artisans, while depicting Kabuki actors and actresses in the stories is not tied down with rules or technique or theme. They had freedom of expression.
AIDS Series/Geisha in Bath
Watercolor on canvas |108 x 81 inches | 1988
Q: Who or What was the greatest influence on you as a developing artist, other than your father, whom you have said wanted you to do something other than take over the family’s Kimono store?
A: I learned a lot about waves and composition from Katsushika Hokusai. As to figurative drawing, Gototei Kunisada is my favorite artist, since he never went for stylized faces but brought out individual characters and faces. Conceptually, Hieronymus Bosch inspired me at the other end, since his vision is all about humanity. He created a timeless statement.
Burqa Inquisition/Chicken Torture
Oil on canvas | 100 ½ x 77 ½ inches | 2003
Q: Do you believe that art can influence culture, or vice versa? For example, paintings from the time of the Inquisition reflected the times, but did not necessarily change them. Your works frequently comment on the hypocrisy of the times, but are they are a reflection of the times or a force for change?
A: I’m certain art has such powerful realm where no one can deny when it works in poetic form. It reflects time and forcefully presents what we feel, think and face today. Art documents times and influences social attitudes if it is presented in highly evocative way. I hope to present my statement in high aesthetics and powerful visual poetry.
Q: What is your preferred medium? Why?
A: Currently I prefer oil. Oil is good for textual subject matter and watercolor for serene surface.
Q: Do you have a favorite piece or series? What makes it your favorite?
A: Yes. Every series that I created is my favorite one. By far Catholic clergy sex abuse had a lot heavy duty thoughts that involve many layers of social and cultural issues. Having a critical view about thematic issues, composition, drawing and how well it reflects the thematic motif and narratives − that means a lot to me. My favorite ones have abundant and richly profound implications.
The Cloisters/Venus and Pope’s Workout
Oil on panel in gold leaf frame | 119 1∕8 x 122 1∕2 x 2 3∕4 inches | 2005
Q: Why has the Catholic clergy sex abuse story become the biggest series you’ve committed to in the last few decades?
A: When I looked at the Catholic clergy sex abuse issues, I saw the institutionalized, long history… where the Catholic Church’s mysogynistic view, confessors, penitence, indulgence, authoritative prayers versus powerless believers, authority versus individual rights. And among others, the gay marriage, same sex marriage issue and the tendency to a totalitarian approach against individuals, the hypocrisy, (and issues of) celibacy, humanity, healthy sexuality, women’s equality, warped sexuality or prohibited conversations between nuns, the institution’s absolute secrecy versus transparent current culture – are all boiling in the same pot. However I looked at it, the clerical sex abuse became the focus, the core of western culture coming from Vatican history. There had been a lot to do with confession, baptism and all sorts of the church’s institutionalized rituals that have enhanced the institution’s financial mechanism. This is a profoundly amazing place to look into, the confessional room. The dark box or black box holds all of the secrets. And that is the driving force in the institution I wanted to investigate.
Q: You speak of human nature and repression of sexual instincts in the priesthood… Can there be hope for real change?
A: I believe there is hope if the Catholic Church recognizes that confession is the main gear that had a lot to do with misguided behavior. This is the engine that needs to be tuned up to current times, instead of harkening back to the male chauvinistic institutionalized structure.
Venus’ Serpentine Confession
Oil and acrylic on panel in gold-leaf frame | 38 x 44 x 1 ½ inches | 2003
Q: What inspired you to start the initial series you began in the early 1990s, right after your AIDS series?
A: Definitely many questions came up when I watched (President Bill) Clinton’s and Monica Lewinski’s trial. In a “Who was telling us what to do in bed” sort of the way. I was looking at the entire episode, it was such a ridiculous media circus. Then I wanted to know where the basic morality and politics were coming from. Eventually I traced it back to the Vatican.
Q: Why does Catholic iconography dominate your recent triptych paintings?
A: The thematic choice defines it into iconic images I really enjoy. I also feel many great artists are among the Catholic Church’s patrons and beneficiaries of the amazing Medici’s support. The Medici family had patronized great and phenomenal artists in the medieval times. What if we did not have those greats that enriched and contributed to human history in visual terms. In the meantime, the Vatican had erased all of the major documents about Catholic clergy sex cases… Am I correct to say this?
The Last Supper/Eve and The Giant Squid Hunters
Oil and gold leaf on panel in gold leaf frame | 199 x 122-1/2 x 2-3/4 inches | 2012
Q: What do the gold leaf and gold leaf frames mean to you?
A: The gold leaf frames imply the rigid Catholic Church as a formidable institution where individual rights are not respected, but squashed by a powerful institution. The gold leaf frame work addresses the sickening over-the-top symbolic wealth of the Catholic Church. Gold leaf is an uncompromising medium to me to use. But in order to address the serious historical background of the Catholic Church’s history, it became such a big challenge for me to tackle and work with it. Gold leaf is a tough medium. By contrasting concept against the framework of ancient triptychs allowed me to address the current socio-cultural issues more appropriately.
Q: Your answers to our questions are as revealing as your art about your concerns with thematic issues and narratives. Some artists say they cannot talk about their work, that it speaks for itself. What do you say to that?
A: All depends on how you want to see. That is their choice.
I personally feel conceptualizing my vision by verbalizing helps it to evolve into a powerful composition. It helps so much visually. When I get stuck visually, verbalizing becomes a handy tool. In the creative process, especially in a narrative work, I focus on the conceptual aspect focusing constantly on compelling issues as a mantra. I see talking about an art work has dual edges. The positive side may help enhance a viewer’s interpretation, but it can also work against as negative to limit how a viewer would interpret the work.
What viewers may not be able to specifically figure out would be the figures or characters and props that I intentionally choose. Since selecting the props and who I may be depicting have a lot to do with a mixture of personal, general, historical or current social and cultural contexts that have a lot to do with the narrative. There are many layers of congruent concepts that make all the stars in the narrative, and the props, work compellingly. Nothing is accidental in the end.
Q: What do you think about Anime’, and do you have any favored young artists you can identify by name or their work?
A: I’m afraid not. I cannot make much comment on anime content-wise, since I’m not into anime at all. I am much more a devoted Ukiyo-e woodblock print fan, which I have extensively investigated. In my view, Ukiyo-e’s vocabulary means so much as aesthetically profound and exciting. Those texts in Ukiyo-e prints are fascinating, since they depicted Edo people’s mind in beautiful way. What appeals to me about Ukiyo-e drawing is the figurative drawings created by feelings peppered with abstract interpretation and freedom of exaggeration. The figurative drawing and the poetry is so inspiring in aesthetic ways.
Q: Do you anticipate that we will ever see a feature-length film based on the style and content of your art work?
A: Definitely. I foresee it coming since the narratives that I have created are all about social and cultural issues that we are concerned about today. My work has reflected those thoughts in that particular time of the history I had lived. In historical context, my work has an abundance of philosophical implications regarding humanity, individual rights, oppression, totalitarian views and bringing out and asserting how important it is to have freedom of speech. Moreover, what art can do to help people to understand who we are – and the most important values (we) may want to have. These aspects will be, perhaps, needed to be examined in an historical sense.
The Cloisters/Birth of Venus
Oil on canvas in gold-leaf frame | 90 x 94 inches | 2002-2005
Q: You grew up in Hiroshima prefecture. You were a boy during WWII. How much of that do you remember and how much of that early experience influenced you to become the artist you are today?
A: I used to draw airplanes a lot. After the war a GI gave me a Coca-Cola. I had treasured the tin can, since it was so beautiful. I loved the way it looked and I made a fantastic pencil drawing. I wish I had kept it. Although it was lost, unfortunately. I still have a great American airplane drawing I did when I was 12 years old. In retrospect, perhaps this already might have set me going for Pop Art.
When my sister and I were just about going out to our school, we saw the two suns. One from the east and one from the west. They are exactly identical sizes and brightness. It turned out that day was the day the atomic bomb was dropped in Hiroshima city. I was 9 years old.
Q: How do you start a painting? Do you do study drawings or sketches before you paint? From Ukiyo-e watercolor and Renaissance style oil painting?
A: For my watercolor painting, I have to make so many study drawings and sketches. The drawing and the composition have to be finished and set to go before I start the watercolor. Whereas with oil, the process of painting is reversed. This is one of the reasons why I had switched over to oil painting. It was a big challenge mentally and physically.
I can start from a blank canvas or panel without any sketches. Then I continue to tweak the initial composition. While it is easily, perhaps, overlooked between the two entirely different vocabularies, there is the obvious undercurrent thematically that is so consistent about my work. There is a lot to do with sexuality, health of individual rights, equality and environmental concerns.
McDonald’s Hamburgers Invading Japan/Geisha and Tattooed Woman
Watercolor on paper | 14 ¼ x 21 ½ inches | 1975
Q: What made you evolve your Ukiyo-e painting style into Renaissance style painting? Their vocabularies seem vastly different from each other. Could you elaborate on that?
A: Largely the two vocabularies have reflected where I had been and am now. Plus, the thematic issues demanded a certain medium. For instance, I felt I could really use oil to address Catholic clergy sex abuse since the subject is textually a complex theme. Watercolor could fall short to bring out the richness of thematic concerns. Concept defines form and vocabulary, in my view.
While I was still learning about American life and culture, I felt my statement had been focused on my Japanese cultural background. Then later on I had realized I had lived in the States longer than in Japan. The experiences I had in America, I felt, my work should reflect. What should I say about USA as a statment in my work? When I was realizing the personal evolution sensing inside, it was getting close to the end of the 1980s. I asked myself what are the most compelling social and historical issues? After I did the personal research summarizing my early shunga series, AIDS, Clinton and Monica Lewinski’s scandal, I realized the most compelling related issue had turned out to be the Catholic clergy sex abuse. I felt it would be a large enough, and profound enough, theme.
Q: Have you done any other form of work in earlier days?
A: I have worked with sculpture such as stone carving, clay figures, resin sculptures in the ‘60s, and also I was really into abstract painting. As a matter of fact, I have loved the way Mondrian abstracted his Dutch landscape into New York Boogie Woogie abstract painting. I was so inspired. When I was a college student in Japan I painted seriously in the Mondrian style painting. I bet he must have loved jazz, imagining from his apartment that the New York streets looked like his paintings. Grids of the street, with exciting jazz. This is just my guess.
Q: What makes an artist significant in historical context?
A: In my view a great artist created art work that is identical with who she or he was. If an artist could articulate what is all about the person, history recognize them. However you looked at him or her, the artist’s being has been expressed in the consistent way – showing who they are. Very consistent about themselves. You know what they are all about. When an artist lacks this, the artist would drift away from history.
Adam and Eve/Web Site 2000
Oil and watercolor on canvas |83 1∕2 x 152 5∕8 inches | 1997-2004
Q: A common thread in your work is sexuality. Where does that come from? Why is it so?
A: I always wondered about this myself. Basically what had become controversial in society has a lot to do with sexuality. It seems we cannot get away from sexuality, since we were born from mothers. Adam and Eve started western history with such warped view about the genders. What if someone comes up with series that the artist presents a reversed view. Eve is a good woman in the reversed order? Adam is somewhat put into Eve’s position instead.
Q: How was the most recent show at the MAC/McKinney Avenue Contemporary received in Dallas, Texas?
A: It was of the fantastic reception! Since showing my large triptych pieces in one huge gallery was more than the dream I was hoping for. I had six large triptychs, each about 10 feet x 10 feet, and one medium Gothic triptych piece. People responded so enthusiastically. They were excited and inspired by the exhibition. Plus, a Pussy Riot member showed up at the opening, since I had been talking about Pussy Riot lately. Actually one of my friends in Dallas had dressed up like a Pussy Riot and showed up. Cheers! There was also the beautiful ballerina among the opening crowd.
Q: Are you preparing the next show now? And where are they going to be exhibited?
A: My solo show opens at the Honolulu Museum in May 2015 for a few months. Then another solo show opens at the Catharine Clark Gallery in San Francisco October 2015.
Q: What can you say about the new work? Do you already have a vision of what it will be?
A: I do. I’m writing a Kabuki narrative for the new work. I will feature Geisha Momotaro, Pope Francis and Pussy Riot and Putin. The story should reflect current global socio-political issues.
Q: What are you working on?
A: I’m still working on the new triptych paintings, and also several triptychs in progress that had been in the incubation period for more than a few years. Perhaps several years. Soon they will hatch! Fingers crossed!!!!!
Lacquer on resin/1966-1970/
Size: 3-3/4 x 29-15/16 x 5-1/8 in. (9.5 x 76 x 13 cm)
Courtesy of the artist and Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco
Q: Your scope of work from 1966-2014… it’s a vast work expressed in different media and conceptual visions, but what ties it together? What do you feel is consistent about your work?
A: Working with sexual and erotic subject matter, empowered women predominate in the narratives. My triptychs focus on equal rights, gay rights, gender issues and health issues, and examine environmental and cultural issues that are pitted against authoritative institutions and power hungry people.
Q: Are you religious person?
A: I am not, but more like I lean toward art power as my guidence for life. Poetry and visual richness in arts are the ones that I value the most.
Q: Thank you, Masami Teraoka.
Catharine Clark Gallery
248 Utah St, San Francisco, CA 94103
Samuel Freeman Gallery
About the interviewer:
Michael Foldes is the founder and managing editor of Ragazine.CC. You can read more about him in About Us.