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Ushio Shinohara: Canal Street Cornucopia
by Alexandra Munroe

Ushio Shinohara paints cinematic reality. He lifts tableaux from what he sees—gritty East Village street scenes, garish Coney Island beach bars, packed Manhattan subways bright with Bubblicious ads—and then compresses multiple views into a single canvas or junk-art sculpture. Speed, picture, and action appear all at once, like a movie whose scenes are transposed into a single frame. Yet within this visual chaos, Shinohara’s multiple narratives emerge as legible, even plausible, scenes of life. His subject is our reality, saturated and intensified, ripe for devouring.

Affectionately known to the Japanese art community by the nickname “Gyu-chan,”* Shinohara was born in Tokyo in 1932. His artist parents instilled in him a love for Cézanne, van Gogh, and Gauguin. Like others of his generation who were raised during Japan’s wartime years, Shinohara developed a deep fascination for the culture that so spectacularly defeated his world. He experienced what his contemporary, the photographer Tomatsu Shomei, called the Americanization of Occupied and postwar Japan—jazz culture, Hollywood bravado, hellacious comic book dramas, and a rough disregard of social convention. In 1952, Shinohara entered the prestigious Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, where he majored in oil painting. Disappointed by the school’s conventional curriculum, he left before graduation. It was the artist and critic Okamoto Taro’s radical call to overthrow beauty for the power of “repulsive” art championed in his influential 1954 book, Today’s Art (Konnichi no geijutsu), that served as Shinohara’s creative catalyst. From that moment on, he was committed to the revolutionary “path of the avant-garde.”

Shinohara emerged as a central figure in the legendary Yomiuri Independant Exhibition, participating every year but one from 1955 until 1963. This unjuried, anti-salon forum for young artists became the staging ground for Japan’s postwar avant-garde and was the stimulus for Shinohara’s early unbridled antics—including his sculpture of found objects that gained critical recognition as “junk art.” In 1960, he was a founding member—along with Yomiuri Independant artists Akasegawa Genpei, Shusaku Arakawa, and Yoshimura Masanobu—of the group Neo Dada (initially Neo Dadaism Organizers), whose exhibitionist Happenings thrust improvised performance and junk-art assemblage towards the center of Japanese avant-garde expression. His fame as the quintessential art rebel was secured in 1961, when he performed a Boxing Painting that was reported in the illustrated weekly Mainichi Graph, with text by the novelist Oe Kenzaburo. Dipping his cloth-bound fists in sumi ink, he punched his way rapidly across an expanse of paper, creating a mural of black drips and splashes that gave literal meaning to the popular term “action painting.” In 1964, Shinohara again made history when he exhibited a copy of Robert Rauschenberg’s 1958 combine, Coca-Cola Plan, and called it “imitation art.”

The JDR 3rd Fund, under the direction of Porter McCray, was instrumental in advancing contemporary Japanese art by supporting young artists in their dream to travel to New York for extended periods of work and study. Some, like Shinohara who came in 1969, never returned home. He loved the city’s luscious filth, its anything-goes spirit, its ethnically mixed multitudes. He loved being an eternal tourist, snapping away at whatever enthralled him, expressing the speed and sensuality of American culture in whatever medium he could afford, including cardboard found on the street. He constantly reinvented the art he loved: American comics, Neo-Dada, and the spirit of Vincent van Gogh.

Shinohara has a special history with the Japan Society Gallery. His one-person show in 1982, Tokyo Bazooka, shocked the Society’s traditional supporters but attracted serious critical review, emboldening Gallery director Rand Castile to commit his program further still to showcasing contemporary Japanese art. Tokyo Bazooka was also my first project as a young museum professional on Castile’s team. I had recently returned to New York after several years of study in Japan, prepared to pursue a curatorial career in Japanese art, a field that I still imagined “ended” in the mid-19th century. What I saw in Shinohara’s Howard Street studio radically and instantly changed the course of my research and curatorial focus, and led directly to my 1994 exhibition and book, Japanese Art After 1945: Scream Against the Sky. Shinohara, it turns out, not only stimulated Tokyo’s postwar avant-garde in historic ways; he has also been an inspiration and a mentor to me and over time to many young scholars who now recognize the giant of his genius, and the genius of his cultural significance.

*Gyu is the alternate pronunciation of ushi for the character meaning “bull”; chan is a suffix for proper names that designates an endearing or informal relation, usually reserved for children.

Reference: (2007); A. Munroe is the former director of the Japan Society Gallery in New York and since 2006 first senior curator of Asian Art at Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum