The Opening Act - A Unique Perspective
Masami Teraoka is internationally recognized for his playful, creative interpretations of traditional woodblock prints ukiyo-e ("pictures of the floating world") fused with Western painterly techniques. He adapts traditional imagery of picturesque Mount Fuji landscapes, the symbolic rising red sun and the mischievous pleasure quarters of Japan to articulate cohesive narratives complete with exemplary technical execution of definitive lines and patterns. In both watercolor and oil works, Teraoka mimics the often theatrical, erotic yet humorous ukiyo-e to critique social, political and religious phenomenon. In the 1970s and 1980s, Teraoka's prolific creations swiftly brought him recognition as a lyrical and satirical commentator. While the chosen subject of one work originated from a single prominent current event, Teraoka's work relentlessly pointed out fundamental flaws in our handling of taboo subjects such as AIDS, its relationship to Western and American culture and our moralizing views about sexuality (Fig. 2,3). In deciphering the intricate motifs of his works, the overarching themes he addresses as an artist are exposed to attest to the prominence of Teraoka as a provocative and pioneering contemporary Japanese artist.
After extensive travels in Europe, Teraoka's imagery, medium and format in the 1990s transformed from delicate watercolors to large sweeping oil on panel works encased by gold frames of Renaissance flair. Teraoka's turn towards Western classical art and the Renaissance in particular allowed him to draw inspiration from reformation of religious, artistic and social customs. Within imposing frames that rival architectural church murals and altarpieces, Teraoka adapted aspects of Renaissance paintings in addition to the pre-existing references to Japanese fine art. In our featured 'altarpiece' The Cloisters Venus and Pope's Workout, 2004-2006 (Lot 1035), Teraoka renders public icons in exaggerated poses, irrational spacing and stylized aesthetics to heighten the visual impact of the work in an astounding and mesmerizing manner. The arched shape panels echo the shape of the architectural cloisters in churches, providing us with contextual evidence as to what lies beneath. As viewers of this breathtaking opus, we recognize that beyond the visual aesthetics stemming from multiple traditions, an intellectual analysis of the scene will reveal a plethora of metaphors. In 2004 when Teraoka began painting this work, allegations of church related child sexual abuse and the banning of religious symbols in France sparked worldwide debate. The Cloisters Venus and Pope's Workout perhaps addresses a few of these controversial issues. While also exemplifying Teraoka's masterful fusion of artistic and social concerns.
On the outside panels, Teraoka paints the amusing yet surreal scene of a Japanese woman as she grazes past a sinking priest with his censer, lifting his mask to reveal his true features. The depicted narrative amidst falling sakura petals is reminiscent of the theatrical kabuki play Sakura-Hime Azuma Bunsho (''The Scarlet Princess of Edo''), a love story of a priest and his male lover. Captured between the two framing columns and glowing moonlight, this short narrative sequence in essence becomes the prologue, the opening act to the inner six panels. The citation of Kabuki dramas, sakura and dramatic eroticism is a long explored subject in ukiyo-e and Teraoka's early works. With the agility of a theatre director and a penchant for story telling, Teraoka illustrates a similarly complex story, mixing fantasy, art history and recognizable historic figures.
Provocative Visual Commentary
In a triptych format complete with curved upper panels, we are presented with a soaring six panel tableau demanding the same attention as the church altarpieces it resembles. Throughout the painting, an eerie aura floats over the ordained Catholic men as their faces are rendered with a rough bluish grey, hinting at the tainted purity of their religious roles, a notion perhaps confirmed by their actions. In the bottom left panel, a young male angel is intimately held by a priest, his short robe revealing slender legs and chained ankles suggesting his involuntary associations with the church. Above him, the two priests gently hold a condom resembling daikon (white radish) in red velvet draping, adoring it as if the church condones protected sex. Extending along the central and right top panels, even the reclined Pope (perhaps suggesting Pope John Paul II who had passed away in June 2005) engages in suspicious behavior as he cradles a provocative scepter and willingly suckles on the fiery angel's nurturing bosom. A feisty nude woman also hovers above his pelvic region lifting an upright radish as though she has relinquished the church's power, much to the amusement of the attentive spectators below. In the far top right corner, two priests glare longingly as the stripper seductively licks the phallic liturgy candle. The paradox of standing affront a traditionally sacred and moralizing triptych, to be confronted with a parade of faithful men rebelliously partaking in adulterous debauchery, is a dramatized scene of Teraoka's sophisticated critique of organized religion's hypocrisy. We are equally at fault as we continue to reach out to organized religion in hopes of salvation and faith despite the numerous scandals.
In addition to the religious connotations is Teraoka's consideration of gender inequality. The angels, Venus and geisha are rendered with an exaggerated boldness, one that despite their coquettish stance, shows a defiant attempt to centralize the attentive and physical power towards themselves. Venus, our goddess of Love, exaggeratedly lifts the weights with ease as the 'cardinal' pleasures her. Her hair billows around her like Botticelli's Venus in The Birth of Venus (1482-1486) only without attempting to hide her sexuality. Teraoka's mildly feminist approach insinuates an observation of the disproportionate sexual freedom between men and women in contemporary society. Teraoka points out the existing inequality of moral standards; at times when members of the ordained clergy are lightly punished for their wrongful acts, women of both Western and Eastern hemispheres represented by Venus and the geisha respectively are ridiculed for the mildest of sexual promiscuity. Its very absurdity is demonstrated in the reveling octopi, who like the fruits of Hieronymus Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights (circa 1503-1505) and the invertebrate frequently depicted in Edo period ukiyo-e (Fig. 1), engage in sexual acts with women.
Through the surreal, fantastic quality of the subject and the theatrical use of vibrant colors, props and characters, Teraoka draws our attention towards the global events which stirred him to produce such a work. Implementing severe strokes, the painting's imposing impression demands not fear but respect by the viewer. Behind the jest and overtly sexual innuendo, the painted bleeding 'wounds' represent the liveliness and prevalence of those issues. Using these small visually disruptive cuts, Teraoka further leaves opportunity for debate; will these wounds caused by the disarray of societal values ever heal or will they scar us forever?
Teraoka's piercing and commanding painting of the age-old debate on religion and sex has been addressed with unique and purposeful execution, marking Teraoka as one of the principal artists of Japanese contemporary art. In recent years, Teraoka's distinctive stylistic adaptation of contemporary life and artistic traditions has materialized in works of the numerous younger-generation contemporary Japanese artists such as Aida Makoto (Fig. 4) and Fuyuko Matsui. Teraoka's sophistication and defiance is also comparable to Gilbert & George who utilize laughter and absurdity to explore controversial issues in already debatable religious contexts. Using church inspired 'stained glass' presentations of elaborate artistry, they use contradictions to subvert religion and its traditions, sex and gender roles in a similar fashion. In essence, Teraoka's The Cloisters Venus and Pope's Workout is universal in its ability to captivate worldwide spectators, tackling global and timeless social issues. It reveals a balanced transatlantic perspective and Teraoka's lofty artistic concept executed with unwavering passion. As one of his masterpieces, it has been illustrated on the cover of his retrospective book Ascending Chaos The Art of Masami Teraoka 1966-2006 (Chronicle Books) and exhibited in notable exhibitions. Teraoka's important work from the earlier AIDS series, AIDS Series/Geisha in Bath can be found in the collection of Queensland Art Gallery Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane, Australia. Numerous other international institutions such as the Tate Modern, London, England; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA; Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow, Scotland; Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, USA; Fine Art Museum, San Francisco, USA and the Singapore Art Museum, Singapore also collect Teraoka's works, a testament to his profound aesthetic impact on the global art world.