In the 1960s, Ushio Shinohara was a bad boy of the Japanese art world. But he and his wife, artist Noriko, spent decades struggling in New York. Then, a documentary with Texas ties brought the couple new fame. The pair came to Dallas for a show at Kirk Hopper Fine Art, the gallery in Deep Ellum. KERA’s Jerome Weeks got a look at how Ushio works.
It’s 39 degrees in the open-air courtyard behind Kirk Hopper Fine Art. But the 83-year-old artist Ushio Shinohara stands bare-chested. He wears only shorts, goggles and boxing gloves, which his wife, Noriko, has helped strap on him. He soaks the gloves in a bucket of black paint. He warns cameramen away from the 18th-foot long canvas that lines one wall. You’re too close, he shouts. “But I don’t care!”
And the splattering begins. He pummels the canvas, the foam rubber wrapped around his gloves squishing and flinging paint, making the canvas look like so much exploded Japanese calligraphy. Ushio developed this technique decades ago, inspired by Jackson Pollock’s action paintings.
“Nineteen sixty very important year,” he says. “European art culture started to come to Japan. Action painting a big shock.”
That’s not all Ushio pioneered in Japan. His art is part performance work, part punk graffiti. In fact, even in the ’60s when he started doing this, Ushio sported a mohawk. The photos that William Klein took of Ushio in action at this time are pure proto-punk. Ushio was part of a ‘neo-Dadaist’ art group, and as much as Pollock’s paintings influenced him, Ushio says he was just angry. He couldn’t even afford canvas — he used paper — and he couldn’t buy real boxing gloves. He just wrapped old shirts around his hands.
But boxing painting, performance art, graffiti — none of that sold in Japan in the ‘60s. So when he could, Ushio grabbed a scholarship to New York. And there in 1972, he met Noriko.
“So that’s the day my tragedy started,” she says.
Chuckling, Ushio demand, “What kind tragedy?”
She qualifies her term with the deadpan reply: “Serious comedy.”
The comic bickering is a hallmark of the couple — widely known these days as Cutie and the Boxer. That’s the title of the 2013 documentary about them. Cutie and the Boxer was written and directed by UT-Austin graduate Zachary Heinzerling — he won a best directing award at Sundance, and the film was nominated for an Oscar.
In it, we see the Shinoharas in their chaotic, crumbling Brooklyn studio. Through Noriko’s comic-book-like paintings — which are animated in the film — we see how the naïve, 19-year-old art student she met Ushio. The former bad-boy of the Japanese art world was in his 40s and now just another starving artist in Soho.
“He asked me,” she recalls, “you know, like, in 30 minutes – you have a bank account? Oh my.”
His family didn’t have bank accounts. His father was a penniless poet, while Noriko’s family was ordinary middle-class. The film reveals them coming from different worlds in other ways. He’s brash and boyish and aggressive. She’s more reflective, with a quiet, mocking humor.
In 1972, Noriko was soon pregnant with their son Alex. And as so often happens, she gave up her art to support the struggling family. In the ‘70s — unlike today — it was still possible to live cheaply in New York. But there’s living cheaply and then there’s scavenging cardboard off the streets, which is what Ushio did to make wild, colorful, motorcycle sculptures – sculptures that often didn’t sell. He was inspired by Robert Rauschenberg’s collages, he said. Rauschenberg was like a god to impoverished young Japanese artists at the time: make art with whatever trash you can find.
But how did they survive in New York?
“By miracle,” Noriko says. “We had no money, so we have to go to pawnshop, and so when we get out from the door, mailman came. ‘Hey, you got a letter.’ And inside – check. That happened so often.”
That’s because, back in Japan, Ushio’s art had started to sell. The William Klein photo sequence of Ushio in action (in his now-rare book, Tokyo) had become famous. Ushio was a member of the same pioneering generation of artists that included Yoko Ono and Nam June Paik, artists who imported Western avant-garde ideas to Japan. So in the ‘80s, Ushio’s early work had finally found an audience: He’d become a hero to younger Japanese artists seeking to break ground.
Plus, the ’80s saw an art museum-building boom in Japan. Put all that together, and you get the National Museum of Art in Osaka contacting the Shoniharas, asking if they still had any of his old work.
No, but he could certainly make new boxing paintings. After more than 30 years, Ushio was back in his boxing trunks.
Meanwhile — with son Alex now grown up — Noriko had returned to engraving. But in 2006, resenting Ushio’s treatment of her (he’d been a serious alcoholic for years, though he now says he’s allergic to the stuff and doesn’t touch it), Noriko created her semi-autobiographical cartoon character, Cutie. Cutie is generally naked — she’s so poor she can’t afford clothes. And she loves — but often argues with — Bullie. (Ushio is “bull” in Japanese, so “Bullie” is not really related to “bully,” but his name does explain Bullie’s occasional resemblance to one of Picasso’s minotaurs.) The impish Cutie even takes over some of the documentary, Cutie and the Boxer.
The movie is a love story, Noriko insists. But Cutie does get her own punches in. It is a love story, Ushio glumly agrees. Which is why he hated it at first, he says: “My taste is very strong and powerful and aggressive.”
But he admits he can’t deny the effect Cutie and the Boxer has had. Three days before their performance at Kirk Hopper Gallery, the Shinoharas went out for breakfast. They walked to the nearby Allgood Café.
“And the waitress recognized us,” says an excited Noriko.
“Yes, Noriko and Ushio,” he chimes in. “Cutie and the Boxer!”
“And she was so happy and she said she was a photographer,” Noriko continues. “And we talked about photography and so at the end, when I was going to pay, she said, ‘On me’ — on her.”
“Unbelievable!” Ushio cries.