MASAMI TERAOKA, The Cloisters–The Pyramid, 2010–15, oil on panel in gold-leaf frame, 117.5 × 127.6 × 6.4 cm. Courtesy the artist and Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco. 

MASAMI TERAOKAThe Cloisters–Geisha and the Pope, 2010–15, oil on panel in gold-leaf frame, 117.5 × 127.6 × 6.4 cm. Courtesy the artist and Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco.

Feast of Fools: The Triptych Paintings of Masami Teraoka

Honolulu Museum of Art
Japan USA

Hawaii-based Japanese artist Masami Teraoka’s solo exhibition “Feast of Fools,” at the Honolulu Museum of Art, is filled with a variety of primarily large-scale paintings from “The Cloisters Last Supper” series (2009–15). Active in Hawaii, but working internationally since the 1980s, Teraoka rose to prominence for his distinctive watercolor paintings that combine traditional, Japanese ukiyo-e style with contemporary allegories. Over the past two decades, his works have often touched upon controversial topics, such as the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and the Monica Lewinsky–Bill Clinton scandal of the late 1990s.

Following a lengthy trip to Europe in 2000, Teraoka boldly shifted his artistic style, leaving behind the palette and oeuvre that gained him recognition in the art world. This new direction, exemplified in “Feast of Fools,” shows oil paintings that are heavily influenced by religious Renaissance and medieval art. The exhibition teems with new triptychs that are styled to resemble medieval-Renaissance golden altarpieces, in which a central panel is adjoined by winged side-panels that can be opened and closed. When viewers are surrounded by these monumental works, they feel as if they have walked into a church-turned-peep-show, due to the highly graphic, overtly sexual and oftentimes uncomfortable images depicted on the panels. One is accosted with repeated imagery of pregnant, haloed “angels” receiving or giving cunnilingus, seminude nuns in various acts of sadomasochism with noted world figures (including Pope Francis), as seen in The Cloisters–Geisha and the Pope (2010–15), The Cloisters–The Pyramid (2010–15) and The Last Supper–Inversion of the Sacred (2009–15).

These themes and figures are reworked and reimagined throughout the series, giving a strong sense of visual and conceptual cohesion to the overall exhibition; although, at times, the consistency of these recurring figures, allegories and overall color tone make some of the triptychs that are compositionally less dynamic than others feel redundant. The calm, quiet solitude of the sparsely populated museum on a weekday afternoon adds to the church-like feeling of the atmosphere that the work creates, which is at once familiar and jarring. Above all, even in this day and age of “anything goes”-type mass media, Teraoka’s subject matter is still surprisingly shocking, particularly due to its emulation (and subverting) of religious art.

The triptychs in this solo exhibition are also in direct dialogue with recent current events, featuring a menagerie of highly recognizable protagonists depicted in their imagery—which, in addition to Pope Francis, also include Pussy Riot, the noted Japanese geisha Momotaro (who made a real-life appearance during the opening of the exhibition) and Vladimir Putin. The narratives depicted in “The Cloisters Last Supper" series offer critical commentary, primarily on the sexual abuse scandals of the Catholic Church that have made headlines in recent years. Teraoka explains that within this theme, he sees an “authoritative institution trying to dictate individuals’ sexual relationships, gender and morality. To bring out such compelling cultural issues and put them on the Last Supper table may be an appropriate place to start a dialogue to investigate the nature of these abuses.”

An interesting addition to this exhibition is the fact that, for the duration of the show, Teraoka will be working on one of the triptychs, Pussy Riot/Swan Lake, at the museum, offering viewers a chance to directly engage with the artist in an intimate and impactful way, instead of the usual haphazard “meet and greet” with an artist that often takes place at museum openings.


MASAMI TERAOKAThe Last Supper–Inversion of the Sacred, 2009–15, oil on panel in gold-leaf frame, 302.6 × 285.8 × 7 cm. Courtesy the artist and Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco. 


“Feast of Fools: The Triptych Paintings of Masami Teraoka” is on view at the Honolulu Museum of Art until August 30, 2015.