To genre-bending Japanese painter Masami Teraoka, AIDS is a world war too
A visitor was walking among the heartbreaking-yet strangely comforting-panels of the NAME Quilt displayed on the Washington Mall. She happened into the Sackler Museum of the Smithsonian close by and experienced a profoundly jarring sense of despair.
Enormous watercolor canvases by the Japanese-born painter Masami Teraoka blanketed the walls, addressing the tragedy of the AIDS pandemic with formal elegance, powerful symbolism and technical mastery of the narrative form. The figure of a mourning father in traditional Kabuki dress, his face and hands tinged with a chill blue signifying death, holds his newborn son in his arms. There is no tragic glamour here. We know the infant is doomed, that the laws of nature have been perverted and that the life-giving aspect of sex has been poisoned at its root.
Drawing on the iconography of 19th-century woodblock prints, the politically suspect pop art of its time, Teraoka deploys the Kabuki-inspired ukiyo-e technique with icons of contemporary America to evoke a demonic world: Coiling serpents, fabulous fish, mysterious creatures of the deep, skeletal ghosts, images of putrefying flesh, as well as condoms, punk rockers, television sets and computers.
Masami Teraoka arrived in Los Angeles from his native Japan in 1961 at age 25. He studied art at the Otis Institute in Los Angeles, and his early paintings, combining Japanese tradition and American pop art, responded to the social concerns of the time: Consumerism, environmental pollution, random violence and cultural conflict between Japan and the United States. In 1986, following the loss of a friend's infant to AIDS, Teraoka expanded his subject matter to include symbols of the epidemic.
"For AIDS themes, the ukiyo-e technique, depicting one scene or moment from a play, was useful in presenting both individual ideas and a broader, more resonant whole," he said. "However, as I became concerned with more complex problems, ukiyo-e became less relevant as an aesthetic."
Teraoka was profoundly influenced by the work of the masters of the Gothic and early Renaissance during a trip to Europe in 1992, particularly the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, whose nightmare visions documented a time of plague. "The speed of today's high-tech revolution and the global invasion by the AIDS virus are not equaled by the speed of human evolution," he said. "Our knowledge and understanding have not developed fast enough."
Incorporating the iconography of Western civilization into his work, Teraoka reminds us in the strongest possible terms that the AIDS epidemic is but one part of an interlocking web of global cries, a crazy quilt of war, pestilence, poverty, violence and disease.