October 3 – December 14, 2019
In the more than 70 works by Tetsuya Ishida now on view at Chicago’s Wrightwood 659, the late Japanese artist offers anxious visions of the individual within consumer capitalism. The haunting, darkly fantastical paintings depict men flayed, devoured, and exploited by industrial manufacturing and the fruits of its production. Much in the same vein of historical Surrealism, the idioms of which were born from the alienation wrought by war and rapid industrialization in the early 20th century, Ishida’s work is commonly understood to allegorize the existential crises brought on by Japan’s economic downturn of the 1990s, or “the lost decade.”
Organized by the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid, the comprehensive retrospective is the most significant presentation of Ishida’s work outside Japan to date. Most of the paintings on view center a figure loosely based on the artist himself, giving logic to the exhibition’s oblique title, Self-Portrait of Other. Ishida was born in 1973 and studied visual communication design at Musashino Art University in Tokyo, beginning his career in the graphic arts before devoting himself to making art in his mid-20s. He came of age at the height of Japan’s pre-millennium economic recession, and his work is often associated with the feelings of hopelessness and estrangement that characterized this period, also touching on parallel anxieties about automatization and other rapidly developing technologies. Ishida had already amassed a bit of a cult following in 2005 when he was fatally struck by a Tokyo train just shy of his 32nd birthday. The uncertain circumstances of his demise have no doubt contributed to the air of mystery surrounding the work.
Assembled en masse in the bright galleries of the Tadao Ando-designed exhibition space, Ishida’s paintings are richly detailed and resolutely ambivalent, depicting twisting anecdotes of bodies turned into grist for late capitalism’s mill. In Ni [Cargo] (1997), Ishida’s proxy is rendered as twine-wrapped cubes being loaded onto a vessel; in Kaishū [Recalled] (1998), his body parts are packed piece by piece into a retail cardboard box; in the “Guchi” [Gripe] (1996) series, Ishida’s resigned body is seen hybridized with heavy machines including an excavator and an army tank. Although some of these paintings border on punchlines to macabre jokes, the overall effect is one of profound, brutal estrangement for the viewer, who is forced to witness a body repeatedly subjected to overdetermined humiliations of industrial exploitation.
A handful of paintings do manifest a softer, more literary and playful sensibility. In Taiki [Body Fluids] (1998), Ishida’s self-portrait is rendered as a weeping sink, wherein an outsized waterbug takes a bath. The gorgeously haunting, almost Edward Hopper-like Long Distance (1999) depicts a humanoid seahorse locked in a telephone booth, alone in a bleak urban landscape. Still others depict the more banal forms of existential torture wrought by bureaucracy, as in the markedly Kafkaesque Derelict Building Department Head's Chair (1996) with the figure depicted as the seat of a chair in a dilapidated chamber. As a viewer moves from canvas to canvas, Ishida’s oscillations between violence and quietude, brutality and poetry, create a mesmerizing, disorienting rhythm. The best works in the show offer moments where these competing sensibilities momentarily resolve, like in the grotesquely beautiful Sōsaku [Search] (2001), which features Ishida’s prostrate body rendered as a rocky, tree-covered landscape for a toy train set.
Ishida’s turn to a surrealistic style in a moment of collective trauma reveals the political utility of art forms that access the unconscious—the zone, perhaps, where personal and social forces collide and commingle outside of visual, linguistic, and rational comprehension. Ishida’s exquisitely detailed compositions built from thousands of obsessive, meticulous brushstrokes boldly assert his own artistic subjectivity within a moment of cultural and economic turmoil—as well as his earnest reverence for the modernist canon. Indeed, the works call to mind the industrial imagery of the Social Realists every bit as much as the precise, dreamlike visions of the Surrealists, mixing allusions to Salvador Dalí, Ben Shahn, Diego Rivera, as well as illustration and comics.
It’s difficult to engage with such richly suggestive and self-referential work as Ishida’s without participating in some mythologizing, but Self-Portrait of Other makes an admirable effort to present Ishida’s work on its own terms, largely stripped of the biographical framing that so many institutions are eager to adopt. Of course, it’s impossible to cleave the two entirely, but the exhibition is compelling both as documentation of the life of a tortured individual and a historical moment of profound social malaise.