Middle-class children are often pressured to climb the ladder of institutional success. With modern ideals of self realization and individual freedom, American parents may be inclined to let the kids do whatever they want. The Confucian tradition of East Asia, however, places a greater emphasis on cross-generational duty. Some kids, especially the bright and creative ones, get caught between what they owe themselves and what they owe their parents. Some shut down and never leave their bedrooms. In Japanese, that phenomenon is called “hikikomori,” or, an acute social withdrawal, pulling inward, and there are over 500,000 such cases in Japan.
Tetsuya Ishida (1973-2005) appears to have been one of them. He was also an incredibly talented visual artist. Right out of art school, he painted masterful critiques of regimented middle-class life as he knew it. He depicted students, as well as office workers, as cogs in an economic machine. They produce, they consume, they have no personal identity, which has been an issue in the world industrial economy since its beginning. As Grace Slick put it fifty years ago, “There are so many of you, white shirt and tie, white shirt and tie, wedding ring, wedding ring.”
What makes Ishida’s depictions so effective is his powerful illusion of pictorial space as precise and convincing as good catalogue illustration—yet with a sense of design as surprising and uncanny as a great Surrealist painter like René Magritte. There is a sense of perfection about the placement of every object and the tone of every area, large or small. Unlike Magritte, however, there is no sense of humor. There is no sly smile that finds our modern world in any way humorous. The prevailing sensation is crushing sadness—like a boy who has lost his mother. And these paintings are all about boys, and all the boys look pretty much like the artist himself. As the artist looks out on the world, all he can see is his own sad, bewildered self.
This is less like social criticism and more like a kind of mental illness. Perhaps he could have abandoned that sense of self-importance appropriate to men in high-status families (his father was a member of parliament). Perhaps he could have paid more attention to another ongoing tradition in Japanese life: Buddhism. It is represented quite well by two life-size historic statues in an adjoining exhibition space. The seated Buddha has also withdrawn from the world, but he is transcending the self rather than remaining locked within it.
The earlier paintings depict young men trapped in the world of work or school. The later paintings often depict just the artist in his bedroom. Though still sad, the ambience is more transcendent. In a large, untitled work from 2001, a boy listens to music in a home entertainment center. Outside the windows, an empty commuter train is frozen in stillness. Beneath the entertainment center, a body lies face down on the floor. Is that his old self that used to care about taking that train to work? Within the room, fresh green weeds, including a few volunteer trees, are sprouting from every wooden surface. Life goes on. The boy is oblivious. Three years later he paints the room again—but this time the boy is gone. Beneath his mattress, a small stream is flowing past a homeless person’s cardboard shelter. A canoe has beached on the pebbled banks. There’s a whole other world down there—a status-free world of freedom and escape. The boy’s shadow reveals that he is staring at it, but only his shadow can make that journey.
It must be noted that Wrightwood 659 is the perfect exhibition space for this extensive retrospective. The architect, Tadao Ando, has created an interior space as beautiful as it is oppressive. As the cement stairways twist upward in the cavernous space between the galleries and outer wall, it resembles the fantastic carceri (prisons) imagined by Piranesi in the eighteenth century. Watchful, omnipresent guards in black uniforms complete your incarceration. Ishida escaped his prison by walking in front of a speeding train at the age of thirty-two. Fortunately, you can escape this one by simply pulling open a heavy glass door.
Despite the shortness of his life, I wouldn’t feel too bad for the artist. He led an honest, productive, uncompromising life. He lived in his paintings and they are beautiful, remarkable places to be. His art also bears powerful witness to the oppressiveness of social order. It would have been nice if he had spent his next ten years making more of them, on a different theme. But that’s our loss, not his. (Chris Miller)
“Tetsuya Ishida: Self-Portrait of Other” is on view through December 14 at Wrightwood 659, 659 West Wrightwood.