For the past 60 years, New York has enjoyed a mythical status concerning bohemian artists and radical art exhibitions. From Andy Warhol and his Pop Art Studio, to Jackson Pollock and his moody abstract expressionist drip paintings – New York has always been a centre for avant-garde artists. No surprise then that it eventually became home to Ushio Shinohara; an eccentric neo-dadaist from Japan.
Shinohara gained attention in his home country for creating large found object sculptures that resembled the Pop Art that was thriving in the USA. He also created his trademark ‘boxing paintings’ that he would create by dipping boxing gloves in paint and having a fight with a canvas. He then settled in New York in 1969 only to meet his future wife Noriko, an art student.
The documentary, that has been lovingly filmed by Zachary Heinzerling, explores how the couple go about creating their individual art works, as well as telling a brief history of their relationship through animated sequences based on Noriko’s cartoon character Cutie. The film culminates in a joint exhibition that is comprised of a main room full of Ushio’s anarchic ‘junk’ sculptures and an original backroom full of paintings of Cutie tenderly created by Noriko.
Although Ushio is the more famous of the two, this film is really about Noriko and her struggle to prove herself as an artist in her own right. She states in the film that they are like “two flowers growing from one pot” and that sometimes it is heaven and sometimes hell. I love both of their styles – his colourful and rapid glimpses of abstract Americana; her subtle and thoughtful, nebulously Eastern cartoons – and they work together as a wonderful couple too.
At one point he is painting a huge canvas, essentially by attacking it from all angles. He then takes a step back and declares, “It’s hard to say what this is… whether it’s good or bad; finished or unfinished” to which Noriko walks in and ponders over it before saying, “I don’t think it’s good.” There are many moments just like this or tenderness between a couple that have been married for 40 years and don’t need to hide anything anymore. This tenderness gives the film a really easy visual style, one that culminates in a beautiful high frame-rate slow motion boxing match between the two of them as they get covered in paint.
The only risible characters in the film are the pretentious art buyers from the Guggenheim and elsewhere who come to the couple’s studio to see Ushio’s work. Their vacuity reinforces the authenticity of the two artists.
From the extremes of witnessing an innovative artist create a bold boxing painting, to the banality of watching the couple throwing cherry tomatoes in the air to catch in their mouth – it is always a pleasure to watch the Shinoharas.