Ushio & Noriko Shinohara “Roarrr!!”

Ushio & Noriko Shinohara “Roarrr!!”

May 26, 2010 – July 3, 2010
Opening Reception: 6pm – 8pm, May 26, 2010

A Roar-r-r-r-ing Couple of New York: Ushio Shinohara and Noriko Shinohara by Reiko Tomii

Ushio Shinohara (b. 1932) and Noriko Shionohara (b. 1953) are an artist couple living in New York. Agewise, separated by more than twenty years, they are comparable to the famous artist couple, Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe. Yet, unlike Alfred, Ushio is no nurturer. Careerwise, they are perhaps more like the celebrated artist pair, Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner. Granted, Ushio enjoyed recognition and notoriety as an extreme radical in the vanguard art scenes of 1960s Tokyo. Still, by the time they met in 1973, the two Japanese artists were virtual unknowns in their new home of New York, like Jackson and Lee when they first met. Noriko’s situation, however, was far more complicated than that of Lee— who had practically suspended her career until after her gifted yet anguished husband’s untimely death—by the birth of their son, Alex, early in their union. Noriko was barely over twenty and still an art student. As the couple scraped by, child rearing took up most of her time, first on Howard Street in SoHo and then in DUMBO in Brooklyn. Or Noriko would say she had her hands full with taking care of two kids, the second being Ushio, an eternal child.

Under these circumstances, the first to break out was Ushio. Ever a personification of energy, Ushio had channeled his unbridled energy, both physical and mental, into his signature Boxing Painting and Imitation Art, the latter being his way of simultaneously paying respect and rendering critique to such American Pop icons as Johns and Rauschenberg. Here in New York, once he learned to feed on the energy of the metropolis, he blossomed. As the curator Alexandra Munroe admiringly wrote, he created “cinematic reality” by “lift[ing] tableaux from what he sees—gritty East Village street scenes, garish Coney Island beach bars, packed Manhattan subways bright with Bubblicious ads—and then compress[ing] multiple views into a single canvas or junk-art sculpture” (Making a Home, 2007). His motorcycles certainly fit the description, constructed from cardboard and encrusted with whatever objects he could lay his hands on for free on nearby Canal Street. They roar on his imaginary highways, carrying on them assorted personalities, ranging from Motorcycle-Mama to Centaur to Superman. When his bikes are devoid of riders, they are as menacing and fierce as they are huge.

Lately, he’s embraced the principles of “clashing two opposites” and “willful misunderstanding,” which he believes help him tap a new creative energy, as demonstrated by his new paintings of Michael Jackson. After the sudden death of the pop star last June, Ushio came to recognize his greatness while watching the unusually crisp images of the white-faced King of Pop on his television set, which was just converted from analog to digital format. In this series, he doubled Michael with Shirai Gonpachi, a gorgeous samurai whose love story, bloodied by murderous exploits, was featured in a popular Kabuki play and a painting by his favorite Edo painter Ekin in the nineteenth century. To top an already unruly riot of images, Ushio would box the completed canvas, to just knock it over the fence, so to speak.

In the 1990s, Noriko began to assert herself in their shared loft-studio. She first declared her “queendom,” a veritable sanctuary of her own, from which Ushio is forever banned. In her queendom she was able to pursue “art as alchemy, changing things with special magic.” Noriko’s creative energy—as vigorous as Ushio’s but more focused—has been most successfully poured into the mediums of printmaking and artist’s books. Her breakthrough came with the invention of Cutie, a cartoon-like alter ego of her tortured married self. The name derived from the casual greeting, “Hi, Cutie,” she received one day from a young man on the street. The personality has had a liberating effect. Cutie gives her confidence as well as freedom—a freedom to mix reality and fantasy to live another, though more or less equally torturous, life with a male antagonist Bullie without resigning to silence and frustration. (“Bullie” at once rhymes with “bully” and plays on “bull” or ushi in Japanese, referring to Ushio.)

For the present exhibition, Noriko has decided to paint in situ a mural titled Cutie’s Magic, which measures 7 feet high and more than 60 feet long and covers the four walls of a gallery room. Painting in oil, Noriko mimics the classical technique of fresco, preparing the ground by spreading white oil paint segment by segment and immediately drawing over a still wet surface in indigo blue. “It’s a great sensation, sliding through it!” Although she repeats a few episodes from the past works, including “Cutie the Dominatrix” and “Cutie’s Red Shoes,” the size makes it totally different. Liberated from the cramped queendom and the framed picture plane, Cutie truly roars, both in her real and fantastic life. In her own reckoning, she is “the happiest creature on this planet.”

Reiko Tomii is a New York–based art historian.