Ushio Shinohara "Life Drawing"

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poster for Ushio Shinohara "Life Drawing"

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His name, Ushio, means Bull in Japanese. But friends call him Gyu-chan, or Calf.

Ushio learned very early in life that art is everything. His mother was a traditional Japanese painter and a professional doll maker. She introduced Ushio to Michelangelo, and by the time he was in junior high he started creating dolls with her materials. When Ushio was studying at Tokyo National Art University, his father—a poet who once owned a small book publishing company—presented him with a book by Jean Paul Sartre, who became a major influence.

1950s Japan was a time of radical change. The Post-WWII economic boom brought giant leaps in culture, art, and lifestyle, and Western styles took over Japanese cities, where mogas and mobos—“modern” girls and boys—danced to Mambo music and copied fashions imported by American G.I.’s. As a poor art student, Ushio couldn’t experience Tokyo’s newfound prosperity. But he thrived as a rebellious yet curious outsider (as he would for the rest of his life), and he became fascinated with the frenetic rhythm of city life. Ushio envied the rich salarymen and their satiated appetites, but that envy merely fueled ideas for artistic expression. In this instance, he mocked “modern” consumer society by sewing his own Mambo pants—out of a pair of old-fashioned slacks.

Ushio’s glaring homemade fashions and freewheeling personality marked him as an outsider, especially among his fellow art students. Of course, his provocations did not go over well in class. When a professor assigned a drawing of a Greek Sculpture with charcoal or pencil, Ushio scoffed at the ordinary imitation of a classic. He challenged the professor—something unheard of Japan—by using a ballpoint pen (which in fact called for more precision). As the legend goes, after six years at university, Ushio was finally asked to leave prior to graduation.

Free of stuffy art school rules, Ushio continued to challenge notions of creative expression. On a whim he shaved his head with a five-cent razor to copy the style in the film, “The Last Mohawk,” which had just come out in Japan. When he saw himself in the mirror, he realized his Mohawk was the first of its kind in the country. Just like that, his hairstyle put him ahead of the curve, and became part of his artistic identity.

Now in his mid-20s, Ushio started making art in a field that a neighboring farmer let him use. He created sculptures out of trash and found objects like stripped bamboo sticks, rags, dough, coal, and tar. The Japanese media eventually took notice of his avant-garde work and wild hairstyle. One day in 1960, a journalist brought an emerging young writer, Oe Kenzaburo (who was to become a Nobel Laureate in 1994), to meet Ushio. Since Ushio didn’t have any work in studio to show Oe, he decided in an instant that it was a time to finally try his idea. Borrowing fifty yen (60 cents) from the journalist, he ran to buy a cheap ream of paper and Japanese Sumi ink. For the impromptu performance, Ushio wrapped his hands with a ripped shirt, soaked them in ink, and began boxing on paper pasted on a wall. That was his very first Boxing Painting.

The next year, the renowned photographer William Klein visited Tokyo and photographed Ushio’s Boxing Painting. Klein had by then become well known for “The Machine Gun Speed” of his photography. That night, Mr. Klein wrote to his friend in New York that Ushio’s speed of Boxing Painting matched Klein’s shutter speed. His photographs of Ushio, “Boxing Painter,” were displayed in museums all around the world.

In 1969, the Rockefeller Foundation invited Ushio to spend a year in New York City. He found a city with its own bristling energy that was in perfect harmony with his art and rhythm. He has remained here ever since. Visits to the Metropolitan Museum let him study Rubens’ drawing and painting technique. He learned that Rubens studied Michelangelo and was greatly influenced by his perspective in Italy (in the early 17th century 1600 to 1608). One day in 1973, Ushio started drawing with pen and ink. He likes to draw, continues to do so nearly every day.

After six decades of creating artworks of all kinds—including cardboard sculptures of motorcycles, “boxing” paintings, and room-sized paintings—Ushio is drawing once again. For these works he used pen, ink, and charcoal, and based his technique on Rubens and Michelangelo. All influences aside, the drawings, of course, still move to only Ushio’s rhythm.

Noriko Shinohara with Patrick Burns



from June 09, 2011 to July 23, 2011

Closing Reception on 2011-07-21 from 18:00 to 20:00


Ushio Shinohara

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