The great thing about tenure is that I can't be dismissed summarily," laughs Sonoma State University professor Michael Schwager. The director of SSU's prestigious art gallery, Schwager is making a nervous joke about his job's future because his exhibition space is preparing to hang a series of works by Hawaii-based painter Masami Teraoka that are, well, genital-friendly. And blood-friendly. And breast-friendly. And bestiality-friendly. And sure, the-Pope-as-monster-friendly.
A career retrospective, the show—titled "Drawing on the Parts: The Art of Masami Teraoka"—presents Teraoka's work in its intended and unabashed form, wonderfully contrasted with ancient Japanese prints that the painter has, in the past, taken for inspiration.
"Drawing on the Parts" is a rare collaboration between one of Teraoka's most avid supporters, the Palo Alto&–based collector Brian Pawlowski, his San Francisco gallerist Catharine Clark and Schwager. (By coincidence, Schwager and Clark each bought a piece of Teraoka's work decades ago as their first-ever fine-art purchases.) Now they are teaming up to bring this world-class artist and his very modern vision to the North Bay in an unprecedented exhibition of the type normally reserved for urban museums.
Japanese-born, Teraoka emigrated to L.A. in the early '60s to attend the Otis College of Art and Design, where he completed both his undergraduate and MFA degrees. With almost no English skills, the artist was startled and invigorated by his new California home and quickly became immersed in what has come to be known as the "second wave" of pop art that emanated in part from the pastel shock of SoCal culture.
Influenced by the traditional wood-print style that marks Japan's Edo period—a time roughly traced from 1615&–1868, one of calm and prosperity in Japan, when the wealthy merchant class was demoted from power but freed to enjoy what was termed a "floating world" of arts and culture unique to themselves while the Shogun ruled—Teraoka made it his own. Much of the art emanating from that time was as deeply erotic as it was concerned with narrative and storytelling. Bohemian and underground, full of allusions and in-jokes, the culture's beloved woodblock prints marking that time, known as "ukiyo-e," are well-known to most children growing up in Japan.
Drawing upon this "floating world" tradition and its arts, Teraoka set about systematically taking ukiyo-e styles out of the realm of the Shoguns and onto the beaches of L.A., using recurring images as individual shorthand. Ancient text, a script known as "jojuri" that is tantamount to Middle English, accompanies the images in cartouches placed throughout, sketching out jokes that Teraoka admits even he can't often remember. Tissues, an old-fashioned visual reference to carnal pleasure, and condoms, a new-fashioned reference to sex as death, abound. Octopi pleasure women eight different ways while jumping catfish presage disaster.
Looking to the world around him, Teraoka fashioned huge, stylized panels featuring geisha and samurai eating McDonald's hamburgers and Baskin-Robbins ice cream. He envisioned L.A.'s iconic La Brea tar pits under the shadow of Mt. Fujiyama. He made his geishas titian-haired, blue-eyed girls and gave them condoms to grapple. His samurai sport professional diving equipment and Timex watches. His Japanese women wear Brazilian thong bathing suits and impatiently repel men's attempt at succor. His blonde-haired Western geishas greedily slurp down labia-shaped sushi. He himself often appears in the works, bemused and clownish, the butt of all cultural jokes.
"It's never simply copying; there is such a wonderful satirical cultural criticism—the Westernization of Japan," Schwager says. "Japan has embraced Western culture, and it isn't always pretty."
And then, in the '80s, a friend's child was tragically transfused with HIV-positive blood, and Teraoka changed his focus. As AIDS raged throughout the art world, the artist slowly moved away from the ukiyo-e style that had made his name and began to learn about and investigate the traditions of Western art, particularly the religious work of the European Renaissance.
Moving from watercolors on paper to oils on canvas, Teraoka has since produced nightmarish, brilliantly conceived triptychs and panels based on old master paintings but ideologically concerned with AIDS, corruption in the Catholic Church, women's subjugation both in the West and Middle East (one series deals with the role of the burka), the Jesus myth replete with stigmata, and—ceaselessly—with the mysteries and joys of female sexuality. Reminiscent of the lurid scenes of Hieronymus Bosch, these hugely narrative multiframe paintings are political, incisive, fiercely topical and yet retain an ineffable, compelling beauty.
"We get really extreme reactions. I'm used to it, because a lot of the other artists we show here invite that response. That's what art should do. If you're pleasing everybody, maybe you're not working hard enough," says Teraoka's chief gallerist, Catharine Clark. "I've had clients who are Catholic who might be offended by some of the content that critiques the church, and I have others who say, 'This is the conversation that needs to be happening.' I love that art can inspire that kind of conversation. There's still a pervasive opinion that the role of artists is entertainment, and the purpose is to uplift; I don't necessarily think that's an artist's job. Not all of it is pretty or easy to digest, but then, neither is the news. Masami is almost like a sponge; he takes everything in, and it all gets into the work."
Acknowledging that Teraoka's current work can be controversial, Schwager says, "I don't do anything just to fill the space, but I don't know if we've ever pushed the envelope this far. Art has always played a role one way or another in stretching boundaries and making visible what people sometimes just think or image. This will be a potent combination.
"For the county, for our audiences, for people who really want to see challenging work—and a lot of the work is super-inviting and beautiful—this is going to be a great pleasure."
'Drawing on the Past: The Art of Masami Teraoka' runs Sept. 6&–Oct. 14, opening with a public reception on Thursday, Sept. 6, from 4pm to 6pm. Teraoka appears in discussion with writer Alison Bing on Saturday, Sept. 29, at 2pm. A sushi-filled reception precedes. All events free. Art Gallery, SSU, 1801 E. Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park. 707.664.2295.