Masami Teraoka’s Art Melds Tradition & Contemporary Topics

The release of the 248-page Ascending Chaos: The Art of Masami Teraoka 1966-2006, (Chronicle) should have served as a comprehensive retrospective of the artist’s career, for a while.

But about the time the book went to press last fall, the artist and his artist wife Lynda Hess welcomed daughter Eve into the world, and along with her, a fruitful body of work.

“It’s funny how one project ends and another begins,” mused the artist in his Waimanalo studio. “She’s already coming in (to my artwork) as part of my life.”

A corner of his studio has been delineated as a cushioned “Garden of Eden,” where Eve naps and plays while her father paints.

Teraoka is recognized for socio-political works involving sexual ethics and politics as related to AIDS, in vitro fertilization, sexual scandals of public figures, and pedophile priests.

His early works, presented in the flat, graphic style of Japanese ukiyo-e masters, won him quick acclaim. Just as the Edo-era woodblock prints depicted actors in famous roles, Teraoka’s current nightmarish works depict characters caught up in the violent, blood-soaked drama of a contemporary Inquisition.

In his newest paintings, destined for a show in Santa Monica next spring, Eve appears dressed as a pope, or as angelic figures in chaotic scenarios involving severed torsos and limbs, and of goddesses and Catholic figures embroiled in a war on sexuality.

The birth of his daughter has injected an element of hope into his otherwise bleak, ominous canvases. But those who appreciate the artist’s visual candor need not worry he’ll stop railing against institutions that claim to be for humanity, while working against it by fostering intolerance and divisiveness.

“Catholic nuns don’t have any way to become a pope at this moment, but maybe a woman can be pope in the future,” said the artist, who also wants to see the image of Eve, the biblical first woman, rehabilitated.

“Eve was a healthy, beautiful, normal woman,” he said, who became a scapegoat for humankind’s inability to resist temptation.

Teraoka learned to question authority as a boy, picking up on his parents’ example. They were kimono store owners who went against his grandparents’ wishes of separating family and workers at lunchtime.

“It was not obvious, but there was a foundation. My family broke with that. My parents wanted to be equal to their employees,” Teraoka said.

He found other aspects of growing up in Japanese society confining, and felt liberated after moving to the United States in 1961. “American culture is very transparent.” he said. They don’t want to hide anything. They love to confess.”

As one who prefers to confess visually, on canvas, rather than with words, Teraoka’s paintings provide him with an outlet for sorting his confusion over the chasm between things men say and things they do.

“To me, Christianity had validity when it was a humanity-based religion that included everyone,” said the artist. “Now, I feel like everyone is using religion like their shield or excuse.”

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