Masami Teraoka

photo: Scott Kubo

This month, one of Hawai‘i’s most celebrated painters, Masami Teraoka, will be featured with 11 other artists in the University of Hawai‘i exhibition Reconstructing Memories. In his extensive career, the Japan-born Teraoka has shocked and amused viewers with his satiric take on contemporary issues, from the Westernization of Japanese culture to AIDS to clergy sexual abuse. Early next year, a book examining his work, Ascending Chaos: Masami Teraoka 1966-2006, will be released by Chronicle Books.

Q: Tell us about your two pieces that will appear in the Reconstructing Memories exhibition.
A: I’ve been working on for them for several years—two triptychs. They are part of my “Confessional Series,” which I started working on during [President Bill] Clinton’s administration. It’s about the American culture of confession. Americans love to confess to each other, talk about personal issues immediately to a stranger. That is totally different from other cultures. I don’t think there’s much bad about it at all. That’s the way we communicate with each other. With Clinton—that was the big confession.

Q: Both of the pieces are provocative interpretations of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Were you worried at all about offending people?
A: When I started my “Confessional Series,” [my wife] Lynda was personally offended. She grew up with a Catholic background. She said, “You don’t understand religion or Western culture. I don’t think you even have a right to paint.” She eventually turned around; she knows I’m doing this because I’m curious about religious culture and history. I always
wondered why the church doesn’t like anybody to ask them any questions. With Christianity, you have to swallow whatever they offer you without thinking about it. That’s something weird.

Q: In the ’80s, you were famous for your ukiyo-e, or Japanese woodblock style, conveying the meeting of Japanese and American culture. Now, your style is Renaissance. How do you know when it’s time to move on?
A: I’ve done this at least four times in my career. You evolve. I start being bothered by the concept I worked with so long. I look at other artists who paint with one subject vocabulary and stay with it for life. I don’t know how they can be excited about it. It’s boring. For me, every day a new page unfolds.

Q: Modern art can look like anything. What is the appeal of these historic styles for you?
A: Today, if you look at the general art scene, most artists, I feel, are not concerned with aesthetics, whereas Renaissance and ukiyo-e art are based on aesthetics. Beautiful compositions, great painting of Renaissance and ukiyo-e woodblock, composition and line drawing—it all sounds like abandoned vocabulary. No one really pays attention to them. It’s a shame that a lot of people have almost like an American fast-food attitude of art. For instance, if I show you this telephone pole as my art, that’s like, Come on. If you want a telephone pole, you can look at a telephone pole. ou can

Q: You moved to Hawai‘i from Los Angeles in 1980. What do you think of Hawai‘i’s scene today?
Actually, there are a number of good artists here, but I think that society is not geared to support or buy contemporary art. It is really difficult for local artists to survive, especially if you’re not doing any flowers or landscapes. The Hawai‘i State Art Museum, The Contemporary Museum, the Honolulu Academy of Arts—they should all plan some major exhibition or traveling show. The problem is they don’t work together. If they’re able to organize the art scene, they can take Hawai‘i to an international level.