USHIO SHINOHARA, born in Tokyo in 1932, is a painter, sculptor, and performance artist who has pushed the boundaries of the art world in both his native country and in New York for several decades. In 1960 he co-founded the Neo-Dadaism Organizers Group, one of the most avant-garde collectives of the post-war era. He is also known to be one of the few Asian artists who has spent time painting on the island of Bermuda, establishing a studio there and composing many luminous, colorful works of expressive art such as Hamilton Port, Bermuda (1994).
Early on, Shinohara’s parents instilled in him a love of painters such as Cezanne, Van Gogh, and Gauguin. His father was a poet and his mother a painter who attended the Woman’s Art University in Tokyo. In 1952 Shinohara entered the Tokyo Art University (later renamed the Tokyo University of the Arts), majoring in oil painting. After graduating, he helped to create the aforementioned Neo-Dadaism Organizers Group, an association of artists who displayed their works of art in an exhibition called the Yomiuri Independent Exhibition. This exhibition was sponsored by a newspaper, was completely open to the public, and was not judged by anyone. It was a form of an “anti-salon” and was a steppingstone for Shinohara’s sculptures of found objects which acquired the label of “junk-art.”
The Neo-Dadaism organizers, including fellow Yomiuri Independent Exhibition participants Akasegawa Genpei, Shusaku Arakawa, and Yoshimura Masanobu, eventually transitioned into the Neo-Dada movement. This movement, using art that was crafted with everyday items, influenced many avant-garde artists (including Andy Warhol) and is considered to be an important transitional period preceding the Pop art Movement.
During this time Shinohara created paintings called “boxing paintings” in which the artist dipped boxing gloves in sumi ink or paint and punched paper or canvas in order to splatter it with pigment. In 1960, in front of an audience including Nobel Laureate Oe Kenzaboro, Shinohara, sporting a mohawk hairdo and stripped to the waist, cut his white t-shirt, wrapped his hands to form makeshift boxing gloves, dipped them in paint, and went on to hit the paper on the studio walls. He was a pioneer in what came to be called “performance boxing painting.” Shinohara explained himself by saying he was in pursuit of “pure action”, an ephemeral art form that was a critical departure from Abstract Expressionism. According to well-known curator Reiko Tommi, this “distinguished Shinohara from other artists like Jackson Pollack, George Mathieu, and Gutai’s Shiraga Kazuo, who also used action to create paintings.”
Shinohara also became known for his “junk-art” sculptures composed of found objects including discarded trash, motorcycle parts, mass media-related objects and other tokens of modern society, used both as sculptures in and of themselves and as components of “Happenings” arranged by the Neo-Dadaism organizers. Around 1963 Shinohara went on to making pieces called “imitation art.” These were works of art that were purposely made to imitate Western Neo-Dada and Pop art works and specifically included imitations of Jasper Johns’ Three Flags and Rauschenberg’s Coca-Cola Plan.
Shinohara, similar to many action-painting artists of the 1950s and 1960s, cared more for the gesture and vitality, and less for the beauty of the image. In a review of his exhibition at Tsakashin Hall in Amagasaki, Japan, Julia Cassim said, “His kaleidoscopic paintings of pneumatic, rubber-nippled nudes, bikers, and Coney Island’s garish glories are painted in the acid reds, greens, and pinks common to Asian street fairs from Tokyo to Bombay. They burst at the seams with detail. Seemingly slapdash and rapidly painted, they are, in fact, as carefully composed as any more formal work.”
In 1982 the Japan Society in New York hosted an exhibition of Shinohara’s work, entitled “Tokyo Bazooka.” Reportedly, it inspired curator Alexandra Munroe’s research into modern and contemporary Japanese artists’ practice, including the 1994 exhibition and catalogue “Japanese Art after 1945: Scream Against the Sky.”
By 1965 the Neo-Dada group’s influence had waned and Shinohara departed for New York with a grant from the John D. Rockefeller the Third Fund. To visit New York was his dream. He came to the city with the intention of staying for a short period of time, planning to use the different surroundings as a basis for generating new ideas. Eventually he became so enamored of the city’s spirit and of the different mix of ethnicities that he decided to stay.
In 1965, before he had left for New York, Shinohara had begun a work of art entitled Oiran that went on to become one of his most successful. An “oiran” is a title given to the highest ranking of a geisha, but instead of making the geisha look beautiful he made her look ugly, using fluorescent paint to create a grotesque type of beauty as a backlash against society’s narrow, traditional concepts of what was to be considered beautiful, and what was not. The philosophical questions arising out of the concept of “beauty” is a recurrent theme in Shinohara’s oeuvre. Writing in the March, 2006 edition of Art in America magazine, Janet Koplos noted that Shinohara’s work is “almost universally raucus and bawdy, (making) little attempt to discriminate between ugly and pretty.” Upon completion of the series of paintings entitled Oiran, Shinohara was awarded a prize by the William and Norma Copley Foundation.
In New York Shinohara loved being a tourist, receiving inspiration from everything he encountered. His next works of art became sculptures of motorcycles. In his mind, motorcycles represented America. He created these pieces out of discarded objects, often with geishas riding in the back seat. They were painted in shades of green, pink, and red, paralleling the colors of Asian street fairs in Tokyo. Shinohara wanted these objects to have a great effect on the viewer and sought to accomplish that with the composition, detail, vivid color, and large scale of the finished product.
Around 1990, he began to once again engage in “performance boxing painting,” this time taking the form of “battles” in which he “fought” other artists in front of a crowd. Also in 1990 his work became part of a traveling exhibition that was sponsored by the Museum of Modern Art in Kamakura, Japan. From September 17-November 6, 2005, his boxing-painting and motorcycle sculptures became part of an exhibition at that same museum. His work Coca-Cola Plan (1964) was included in an exhibition called Tokyo 1955–1970: A New Avant-Garde, which ran at the Museum of Modern Art in New York from November 18, 2012–February 25, 2013.
In 2013, Shinohara and his wife, Norika (herself an artist), were the subjects of an Academy Award-nominated documentary film, Cutie and the Boxer, which detailed the difficulties the couple have had in trying to successfully maneuver their way through the problems encountered in a union of two artists seeking individual recognition for their efforts but who must also make sacrifices in the name of love, and in the name of preserving a 40 year marriage.
Despite his youthful reputation as the enfant terrible of the Japanese art world, Shinohara has lived long enough to see his work exhibited at many prestigious institutions internationally, including the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art (Shinagawa, Japan), Centre Georges Pompidou (Paris), the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Seoul, and other public and private collections of note.
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