Masami Teraoka has dealt with AIDS the only way he knows: by turning the scourge into a Kabuki drama. Deeply disturbed by the rapid spread of the disease and horrified to learn that a friend's baby had contacted AIDS from a blood transfusion, he poured all his talent, energy and anxiety into "American Kabuki/Oichiiwa." It's a four-panel screen (about 6 1/2x13 feet) painted in oil on canvas in the style of Japanese woodblock prints on view at the Space Gallery.
Teraoka has been widely celebrated for his virtuosity and wit, usually played out in a spicy East-West cultural stew. His brilliant career is marked by such tragi-comical visions as McDonald's and 31 Flavors invading Japan, the sinking of the La Brea Tar Pits and Kabuki joggers.
But AIDS isn't a funny subject, nor does Teraoka intend it to be. The comic effects of "American Kabuki" are only employed to make it possible to look at an ugly theme--painted beautifully, of course.
Wooed by Teraoka's artistic finesse, we stare directly into the crazed eyes of a wild-haired woman who rises from a torrential sea, clutching her baby in one arm. Both have lesions on their skin and they are beckoned by flames, representing the souls of those who have already died from the disease. A pair of goggles hanging from the woman's other arm is the only vestige of her former life. A frigate bird snatching fish from the mouths of smaller predators in the right hand corner of the screen reinforces the nightmarish mood.
Bold calligraphy in the upper right says "Smash Hit Play. American Kabuki," while smaller characters read "death toll is increasing because of AIDS epidemic." Calligraphy covering much of the background of the screen relates the narrative of the "play."
This is intentionally strong stuff, but Teraoka has introduced a ray of hope in the moon, which also refers to the often expressed conviction that "If we can put a man on the moon, we can. . . ."
The remainder of the gallery contains a varied selection of lighter fare. There's a masterful watercolor-on-canvas scroll of "Waves" that rolls out to about 15 feet, a two-panel watercolor of the "California Coastline" and new works on such risible themes as snorkeling geishas who become entangled with octopuses. A dozen preparatory drawings and finished studies for major works get down to the heart of Teraoka's talent by showing just how much he can do with a single line. (Space Gallery, 6015 Santa Monica Blvd., to Jan. 3.)