Wrestling the Demon: Noriko and Ushio Shinohara

Living with Art, Living with Each Other

Noriko and Ushio at work. Photograph courtesy of the Shinohara family.
Noriko and Ushio at work. Photograph courtesy of the Shinohara family.

“Art is a demon,” “Making art is always struggling.” Ushio and Noriko Shinohara’s parallel statements speak to the unremitting and beautiful nature of a life devoted to art. The pair possess an unbridled creativity, both vital and unrelenting, yet distinct in its manifestations. Noriko and Ushio embraced New York City’s art world at a time when artists such as Yayoi Kusama and the Gutai Group were asserting a Japanese voice in the thriving art scene of the United States. For nearly 50 years, the pair have continued to engage in this artistic discourse, never ceasing to test the limits of their own creativity.

The 1960s and 1970s marked New York City as the international hub of artistic innovation. As calls for political and social reform swept the city, resident artists pushed away from Abstract Expressionism to explore new territory. From performance art to conceptual art, new movements erupted throughout the city. The work of artists such as Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and Roy Lichtenstein resonated beyond the United States, influencing the post-war art scene worldwide. Blurring the boundaries between fine art and popular culture, the American avant-garde of this time considered contemporary culture with a dose of irony. Challenging concepts of authorship, appropriation, identity, and consumption, movements such as Pop art explored and critiqued the contemporary world through bold colors, unusual methods, and constant wit. These transgressive artistic avenues enticed both Noriko and Ushio to leave Japan and participate in this exhilarating art scene.

Noriko Shinohara, Cutie as Olympia, from the Cutie series.  2016. Ronin Gallery.
Noriko Shinohara, Cutie as Olympia, from the Cutie series. 2016. Ronin Gallery.

For Noriko, her prints and paintings reflect self-actualization as an artist through her Cutie series and beyond. As Cutie develops over the years, Noriko exorcises her regrets, hones her artistic awareness, and finds empowerment through her work. In the adventures of Cutie, Noriko infuses this semi-autobiographical tale of love and struggle with persistent humor. While her Cutie prints unfold in bold monochrome, Noriko’s etchings echo this playful attitude in lush detail. From her Un Voyage d’Inca series, to her fantastical city scenes, Noriko combines historical allusions, urban life, and rich, meticulously executed details in her works. As an Incan-style cat slinks down a flight of steps and floating nudes recall angels upon a Renaissance ceiling, Noriko’s etchings invite the viewer to ponder a new take on reality.

From enfant terrible of the Japanese art scene, to a Brooklyn-based artist, Ushio continues to develop his action paintings and prints with unrelenting vigor and varied perspective. Ever in search of new inspiration, his work reflects his many influences over the course of his career, both artistic and experiential. While the Imitation Art series follows his introduction to the American avant-garde of the 1960s and the Oiran series channels his enchantment with ukiyo-e of the Edo period, Ushio synthesizes each of his inspirations with clever irony. His boxing paintings punctuate his oeuvre with undiminished dynamism, while his motorcycle sculptures and prints draw from decades of artistic exploration and visual punning to capture the grit and glory of life in New York City.

Ushio Shinohara, Blue and Green on White from the Boxing Painting series. 2012. Ronin Gallery.
Ushio Shinohara, Blue and Green on White from the Boxing Painting series. 2012. Ronin Gallery.

In 2013, Zach Heinzerling’s film Cutie and the Boxer explored the intersecting vibrancy and struggle of these two veterans of the New York City art scene. The film won the Documentary Directing Award at Sundance Film Festival in 2013, an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary in 2014, followed by an Emmy for Best Documentary in 2016. In the afterglow of the film, the couple has participated in joint exhibitions from Dallas to Tokyo. As Noriko explains, “we are like two flowers in one pot. It’s difficult. Sometimes we don’t get enough nutrients for both of us. But when everything goes well, we become two beautiful flowers.” [1]

Amidst financial struggles and artistic stifling over the past four decades, their art captures such moments of artistic blossoming. Noriko and Ushio Shinohara have participated in solo and group exhibitions internationally. Noriko has exhibited her work at the Japan Society New York, IPCNY, and the Marta Shefter Gallery in Krakow, Poland, to name a few. Her work can be found in collections such as the Davis Museum and Cultural Center at Wellesly College. Ushio has participated in exhibitions at the Tate Modern in London, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and the Guggenheim Museum SoHo. His work can be found in permanent collections such as the Museum of Modern Art New York and The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto.

Wrestling the Demon: Noriko and Ushio Shinohara explores decades of printmaking within these two storied careers. While each artist’s materials and styles fluctuated throughout the years, the print medium weaves through each triumph and growing pain. The exhibition approaches these works not as solitary art objects, but as a continuous evolution over several decades. Though these two prolific careers knot and intersect, neither loses its fierce independence. Their son, Alex Kukai, carries this artistic legacy into the next generation, drawing inspiration from street art of New York and Tokyo. From Noriko’s famed Cutie series to Ushio’s notorious boxing paintings, this exhibition considers decades spent wrestling with the demon of art, and quite often, wrestling with themselves.


 

1. Cutie and the Boxer. Directed by Zachary Heinzerling. New York: 2013.