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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, October 29, 2006

Tokyo museum to show Island artist's portraits 'Neighbors' has elusive quality

By Marie Carvalho
Special to The Advertiser

Kaua'i-born Jason Teraoka's 88 box-framed 6-by-8-inch acrylic-and-blue portraits examine "what makes us tick." The entire series goes on view at Tokyo's Hara Museum of Contemporary Art on Friday.

Photos by Brad Goda

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Day job: Exhibitions and collections preparator at The Contemporary Museum

Big news: Solo show "Neighbors" at Tokyo's Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, Nov. 3-Jan. 14.

Facts: Jason Teraoka is not related to artist Masami Teraoka. His collaboration with visiting artist Yoshitomo Nara and other local artists for TCM's "Shaka Nara" installation led to his hook-up with the Hara Museum.

Online: www.haramuseum.or.jp

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"Je ne sais quoi," say the French, meaning, ironically, something indescribable a quality that defies language. Listening to Honolulu artist Jason Teraoka and others describe his recent series of small figurative portraits, the images' elusive quality is what's most apparent.

"That's why I paint because I can never really put it into words," explains Teraoka.

That elusive "something" inspired Toshio Hara, director of Tokyo's Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, to invite Teraoka to show his portrait series in "Jason Teraoka: Neighbors," opening at the Hara Museum next month.

In his forward to the exhibition catalog, Hara writes that, upon first viewing the portraits, he wondered, "What were these people facing? What was going to happen to them? In their strange settings, it was impossible to tell, and perhaps that is why they stirred something peculiar within me."

"Neighbors" is an extraordinary showcase for Kaua'i-born Teraoka: Not only will the Hara Museum exhibit the entire series, it also has arranged to purchase all 88 portraits a number Teraoka chose for its auspiciousness in Japanese culture for its permanent collection. The Hara Museum plans to show the work again in the future, both in Tokyo and at its annex in Gunma prefecture.

The intimate, box-framed 6-by-8-inch portraits, painted in acrylic and glue on paper, represent an evolution in Teraoka's growing oeuvre. The artist, whose inventive toylike sculptures have been a welcome sight in Honolulu's art scene, has translated their nostalgia, warmth and beguiling disaffection into two dimensions. For while there's something light, or, as Hara suggests, "comical or sweet," about the portraits, it lives on the razor's edge from darkness.

Maybe it's the paintings' palette of lush, reserved tones reminiscent of comic books and graffiti and low-lit back rooms that set off the subjects' mottled flesh. Or is it the subjects: not only neighbors, but also Satan, Frankenstein the demons and monsters that people the subconscious? Perhaps it's Teraoka's technique of working paint over glue, quickly, without a preliminary sketch, to achieve the exquisite transparency of flesh, and the deep, abstract and painterly backgrounds into which his subjects sink. Maybe it's the voyeuristic intimacy of scale. But when Teraoka mentions Alfred Hitchcock, it's easy to see how early Hollywood suspense films the cinematic denouement of Romanticism's Gothic tales lend the portraits their film-noir-esque sensibility.

That analogy also makes sense in terms of Teraoka's directorlike obsession with his subjects, who aren't necessarily "real" people, but rather, conflations: characters that he's created or who have revealed themselves to him from a mix of sometimes fleeting impressions (such as strangers he's merely passed on the street). The images, grouped as a whole, read a little like a storyboard. What sifts out in this scene setting are hints of character, of both volition and despair: how each may, or may not, act.

Teraoka says, "As a kid, I wanted to be an actor. It's almost like I'm creating stories for these people. Each portrait is more like a vignette; together, they create narrative."

Growing up on Kaua'i, he adds, was isolating, "like a cul-de-sac of the world, in a way." Within that enclave, he received much of his information from the media. He explains, "We were of the generation when television exploded. ... Many of the series' images are nostalgic, and the references very specific to the '50s and '60s but timeless, as well."

And they're particularly specific to early American noir movies and cartoons, stories that meandered, then froze in flickering scenes that dragged on, without dialogue, while characters, staged in unnatural light, awaited what? Teraoka's portraits capture that dramatic, interstitial "moment" depicted in those classic films: the neutral, dim space from which the subconscious emerges.

Teraoka remarks, "I try to create those feelings in the paintings: moments that lead into each other, an impending something that never quite unfolds."

While the personal psychology of his subjects fascinates, Teraoka views the series more in broad sociological terms, as examinations of human nature, politics, emotions, agendas or, as he says, "Whatever makes us tick."

And maybe it's the artist's own inclusive description the humble "us" that makes his storyboard so humanistic and compelling. Not merely a social commentator, he seems also to frame himself within the motley crew that he's assembled. Or at least that's the sense the elusive je ne sais quoi that emanates from the portraits.

That sense may reflect larger trends in contemporary art, suggests Yoko Uchida, who curated "Neighbors" for the Hara Museum.

"There seems to be a shift from art which involves various 'strategies' in their production, to those that can be described as 'humane,' " says Uchida. "In Teraoka's works I see this very trend paintings where one can see traces of the artist's brush strokes, the engaging characters he draws who are full of emotions, etc."

Museum director Hara concurs, writing, "Even as Teraoka satirizes the society that produced such people, there is a deep compassion in his depiction of them. ... While looking at his pictures, one gets a momentary glimpse of oneself."

Marie Carvalho writes about literature and the arts.