21st Century Surrealism:

"Tetsuya Ishida: Self-Portrait of Other”


Every time I visit Wrightwood 659, it fulfills its goal of creating “contemplative experiences of art and architecture” in accordance with architect Tadao Ando’s design aesthetic.

I realized how important this message is to the museum when, on my recent visit to “Tetsuya Ishida: Self-Portrait of Other,” I saw they are still displaying the same “Tadao Ando: Architect” exhibition that was on view during “Dimensions of Citizenship: Architecture and Belonging from the Body to the Cosmos,” which ran from February through April of this year.

Really, Wrightwood 659? Just slap on a new title and wall text and expect us not to notice? Do you have some contractual obligation to display this work every other time you have a show? Or, if this is just filler, why not show some solo or group exhibition of prominent or emerging local artists? It’s not like there isn’t anything interesting happening in Chicago’s art community. Seriously though, I’d really like to know.


Anyway, after breezing through the Tadao Ando exhibit again, I moved on to the upper floors of the museum to experience a well-organized exhibition of some of the strange and engaging paintings of Tetsuya Ishida. As the accompanying text points out, although Ishida is not well known in the West, he is a cult figure in his native Japan. His work is both a reflection and a critique of pervasive cultural conditions in that country. Made during the turn of the new millennium after the economic recession that hit Japan in the nineties, his works speak to concerns of postindustrial anxiety that have had a lasting effect on Japanese cultural identity.

Ishida’s paintings are filled with figures that almost all have the same face. Multiple figures in the same painting all appear as clones of one another, suggesting a complete dissolution of individual identity and submission to the monotony of life in a post-industrial capitalist society. Refuel Meal, for example, depicts suited diners in a restaurant being served by uniformed workers who plug a feeding mechanism into the diners’ mouths. In Prisoner, a school building is not only surrounded by identical-looking boys, standing like alienated statues, but the building itself has the giant head and hands of that same boy.

According to the museum's wall text, Ishida explained that his clone-like figures represent a kind of “everyman” or “salaryman,” as male professionals are known in Japan. To refer to them as self-portraits solidifies the on-the-nose implication that the self is lost in taking the path of the “salaryman” life. Scenes like the one in Prisoner or Awakening, a painting set in a primary school classroom filled with clones, some of whom have bodies hybridized with large microscopes, also feature the repeated figures not just as professionals but as the students they were early in life, speaking to the larger socioeconomic system that facilitates a destiny without free will.

It is not only repetition but conflation that is key to the narrative of Ishida’s world. As in Prisoner and Awakening, in many other pieces, the human body is merged with objects or mechanisms. The first painting we see outside the main gallery, Untitled, depicts a man who has melted into his combination bed and desk set and all of the possessions that are piled on top of it.


Tetsuya Ishida, Untitled, 2001, oil on canvas. Photo by Michael Tropea. Courtesy of Wrightwood 659.


Heavy-handed as it may be, it is the wide scope of quotidian subject matter that gives Ishida’s oeuvre its conceptual weight. Whether it is shopping, exercising, grooming, eating, working, playing, or praying, regular human activity is devoid of unique purpose or value in Ishida’s world. Instead, these activities are mere practicalities or functions of the drone-like servants to a dystopian capitalist hive.


Questions arose for me in exploring this exhibition. Were Ishida’s pursuits as an artist a remedy for the suffering depicted in his paintings? Are his images a critique focused more on his own existence or on the world he saw around him?

I did not find answers in the wall text, but I do feel there is something revealed by Ishida’s conservative approach to painting. The materiality of paint takes a backseat to the illustrational nature of his particular cultural narrative. Within the universe of broadly surrealistic artists, this places his work closer to the Magritte or de Chirico end of the spectrum than to that of Dali or Ernst. Moreover, his use of the male figure, the aforementioned “everyman” or “salaryman,” and a distinct lack of female subjects seem unintentionally to reveal his own position of privilege in Japanese society, which remains far more patriarchal than many modern Western nations.

This exhibition only features five paintings with female subjects (only two of whose faces can be seen; two more are depicted in erotic advertising in Browsing) compared with dozens and dozens of renditions of his repeated male figure.


Tetsuya Ishida, Abortion, 2004, acrylic and oil on canvas. Photo by Michael Tropea. Courtesy of Wrightwood 659.


One of the strangest, and perhaps more controversial depictions, at least through a contemporary Western lens, is Abortion. A male figure sits on a bed on which a woman lies with her back to the viewer. Under the bed runs a stream with grass, rocks, and a monochromatic baby in some kind of carrier. The male figure looks down at the stream. Although at a glance he looks almost relieved, when I stepped closer to the painting, I saw a deep sadness on his face.

This is the figure in the exhibition with the greatest amount of depth and complexity, at least among those I encountered; still, given that it is a painting about abortion, it says a lot that the male figure is the one shown struggling with the situation while the woman reclines on the bed, presumably in a state of physical trauma but without identity or a clear intellectual struggle—at least not in a way that is consistent with the rest of Ishida’s paintings.

Other depictions of women include Convenience Store Mother and Child and On Holiday. In both, the woman is depicted as a mother figure. These painterly tropes harken back to the Christian altarpieces both pre- and post-Renaissance, adding complexity to Ishida’s relationship to the history of painting but still reducing the role of the woman to one that makes her a satellite to the male-centered narrative.

One could make the case that the artist is male and that therefore, through his treatment of the self-portrait, it makes sense that the figures are predominantly male as well. But Ishida explicitly rejected the notion that the figures were representative of him as an individual, leaving them to exist as self-portraits that represent the part of him that is this clone of the “everyman”/“salaryman.”

Though the content of Ishida’s work pertains heavily to a bleak outlook on life—an existence in which identity is reduced to an ultra-conformist notion of non-self—there is enough work here focused on the wide range of struggles experienced by the “everyman”/“salaryman” that this existence looks far more substantive than that of a woman in postindustrial Japanese society. This is not to say that Ishida himself is sexist—rather, it is merely to point out that he was deeply bound to the social structure he dissects with his painterly inquiry.

There is somewhat of a welcome exception in one the stronger paintings in the exhibition, Recalled. This image, which depicts what may be a family observing a worker making some kind of adjustment to a disassembled man in a box, is one of the more ambiguous of Ishida’s larger works. Again, the female figure is likely a wife and mother overseeing the recall of her failed husband, who is but a product. Here, the notion of failure is assigned to the male, but it seems that the woman in the image bears the burden. She displays the same affect of dystopian ennui that is characteristic of the male figures throughout the works in this exhibition.

Whether inadvertent or not, Ishida’s many allusions to tropes of Western painting, such as surrealism and mother-and-child iconography, also hint at an internal conflict of identity. Unlike the celebrated work of Takashi Murakami, whose ‘superflat’ aesthetic embraces Japan’s artistic past while blending it with imagery from Japan’s pop-culture present, Ishida’s pieces seem to ignore a patently Japanese aesthetic. Instead, Ishida’s modus operandi feels longingly aspirational rather than monumentally triumphant.

This begins to answer my lingering questions about his artistic pursuits in the face of his struggles with identity. It seems that in spite of his drive to unveil the true nature of life as a salaryman in postindustrial Japanese society, he still had a kind of blind spot that prevented him from breaking free from it. In an untitled painting from 2004, a year before his death at the age of 31, there are no figures. Instead, the image depicts a bedroom in which an elevated mattress has a pleasant stream with grass and rocks running underneath it. Books are stacked on the mattress. There is a peace to this image—but is it the peace of the grave?


Tetsuya Ishida, Untitled, 2004, acrylic and oil on canvas. Photo by Michael Tropea. Courtesy of Wrightwood 659.


Like the stream in which the baby can be found in Abortion, the stream in this image seems to be a metaphor for death. If Ishida’s only answer to escape from this life is death, my question may be answered. Either way, as with any artist who leaves this world so young, we can only wonder where their work may have gone and where it may have taken us.

Evan Carter


Evan Carter is a contributing editor of the New Art Examiner. He earned his MFA degree in 2017 from the University of Chicago and wrote about Documenta 14 in a prior issue of the Examiner.


“Ishida: Self-Portrait of Other” is on view at Wrightwood 659, located at 659 W. Wrightwood Avenue in Chicago, from October 3 through December 14, 2019.

Tetsuya Ishida, Refuel Meal, 1996, acrylic on board. Photo by Michael Tropea. Courtesy of Wrightwood 659.

Tetsuya Ishida, Recalled, 1998, acrylic on board. Photo by Michael Tropea. Courtesy of Wrightwood 659.



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