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ART REVIEW : AIDS Theme Darkens Artist’s Playful Vision

Masami Teraoka has always taken a tolerant view of the folly of humankind. A social critic in the tradition of Daumier and Thomas Nast, he’s explored man’s ignorance and short-sightedness with the wise bemusement of an indulgent parent. Frantically racing about, soiling his own nest, a slave to sensual pleasure, blind to the glory of nature, man is obviously a rather foolish creature, but like a mischievous dog that persists in chewing up the paper, you love him anyway. Teraoka affects a sharp shift in tone in his latest series, however. A mournful requiem for AIDS and a warning of even darker days to come, “Waves and Plagues” speaks with a grave sense of finality altogether absent in previous work by this enormously popular artist.

On view at the Long Beach Museum of Art through April 25, “Waves and Plagues” may be a bit too heavy for Teraoka’s longtime fans who have loved his work for its playful handling of erotica (one of the cornerstones of Japanese art) and the comical collision of the cultures of Japan and America. A master of the visual pun, Teraoka has explored pollution and the corruption of tradition as symbolized by such things as the junk food industry and the tourist trade, and invariably made his point with an extremely light touch. If you failed to get the message or the jokes in his delightfully naughty paintings, you could always luxuriate in their overripe beauty or marvel at Teraoka’s dazzling technique.

It is, however, virtually impossible to miss the point in this new work; these pictures resonate with an overwhelming sadness that’s both moving and unmistakably grim. “Waves and Plagues” is but the latest in a spate of exhibitions designed to increase public awareness of the AIDS epidemic, and the recent death of esteemed photographer Robert Mapplethorpe will no doubt generate a few more. (LACE presented a survey of AIDS-related art last fall, and a similar exhibition of photographs by Rosalind Solomon opens at UC San Diego on Tuesday). Born in Japan in 1936, Teraoka immigrated to the United States in 1961 and became caught up in the then-burgeoning Pop art movement. Synthesizing the disparate influences of Japan, America and Pop, he arrived at a unique style rooted in the traditional Japanese printmaking form known as Ukiyo-e. A vibrant yet meticulously controlled woodblock-print technique, Ukiyo-e became popular in Japan in 1615 and thrived until 1868 when it disappeared. Basically a form of genre art, Ukiyo-e is comparable to modern-day comic books in that these images are often inscribed with text illustrating a corresponding story. Teraoka revived the style and made it current by using it to tell modern stories loaded with hip nuances, and his reputation spread like wildfire after his first major one-man show in 1975. (The fact that his work reproduces extremely well didn’t hurt.)

Teraoka’s longtime preoccupation with nature and eros dovetail perfectly in AIDS, which he perceives as a metaphor for the wrath of nature and a foreshadowing of even greater ecological disasters to come. He delivers his warning here in the form of complex parables, many of which employ the structure of Kabuki theater. The recurring motifs in these highly detailed compositions function on multiple levels; the snake, for instance, symbolizes the AIDS virus, while condoms represent salvation and the forethought one must now bring to sex.

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Tormented, angry figures wear blue makeup which signifies that they’ve died but are unable to rest in peace. “He died but his soul hasn’t really passed on yet; it wanders around,” reads the text on a particularly powerful image. The lush beauty of Teraoka’s watercolor style juxtaposed with the anguish and confusion of the figures in these images makes them doubly heartbreaking.

Nine years ago, Teraoka relocated from Los Angeles to Hawaii, and not surprisingly, the shift in locale is reflected in his art. Whereas previously his work occasionally verged on being hysterically busy, “Waves and Plagues” exudes a quiet, somber simplicity (which could, of course, have something to do with the subject matter). Life in a tropical paradise has also increased his concern with ecological issues, and he’s begun doing straight landscapes, a few of which stand among his finest work. “Pali Lookout,” a small landscape of a bank of green cliffs eroded by the sea, pulsates with a mysterious ambiguity that leaves it open to more varied interpretation than his narrative scenes allow.

However, the occasional luminous landscape does little to disguise the fact that Teraoka is essentially a fin de siecle artist working at the top of his form. Fin de siecle is a French term describing the final flowering of a culture that’s become so perversely overwound and diseased that it’s on the verge of blowing apart; that’s pretty much what “Waves and Plagues” is about.


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