Visual Art

Masami Teraoka's Inversion of the Sacred Brings Geishas to the Vatican

We start with the smallest triptych. In the corner of the painting, Masami points out a small plate of multi-colored lipsticks. "When I started this one I had just found out that in Iran, people aren't allowed to wear lipsticks," he says. " I was amazed by this. The girls aren't allowed to wear lipstick. People in power are telling women what they can't wear on their lips."

It's Wednesday afternoon and Masami Teraoka is overseeing the installation of Inversion of the Sacred at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary. He's a slight Japanese man with a playful energy and a lot to say. His series of triptychs comments largely on the clergy sex scandals of the Catholic church, and interlaced throughout is a broader criticism of the abuse of power. His work is meticulous and even the tiniest elements in his paintings are rich with meaning and narrative.

Teraoka treats his subjects with an irreverence that he explains is fitting. "Here, you see geishas are visiting the Vatican," he says. "I'm imagining that after all the problems the pope needs a little bit of sex education and so the geishas come and they are showing him the ropes."

Teraoka's interest in power imbalances began in childhood. He grew up just miles outside of Hiroshima City. At the end of the war, Teraoka and his sister were evacuated to a few towns over. "We stood on the street and looked at the sky, I pointed out that I see two suns," he says. "One was the real sun, the other was an atomic bomb. Usually people talk about mushroom clouds, but from where I was there was another sun over Hiroshima City that day."

Although this specific memory isn't integrated into his work, from an early age Teraoka understood that power isn't always fairly delegated. In 1964, Teraoka left Japan to study art in Los Angeles. His early work focused on cultural invasion. During his childhood, his parents owned a kimono store that had been in the family for 70 years, which shuttered after the war with the westernization of Japan.

"When I first started paintings, I thought why not talk about cultural invasion? Like McDonald's invading Japan," he says. "I've also always been very interested in human sexuality and religious icons."

His work is thoughtfully risqué. It's not about the shock value, although seeing Pope Benedict at an orgy or with a phallic squid emerging from his frock is sure to ruffle some feathers. He hopes the work sparks a conversation about the church's role and what it means that a human being is speaking for God.

"It doesn't seem right that believers just trust the people who are saying, God says do this or you will die," Teraoka says. "Doctors say these things too and you always are supposed to trust them. Do this or you will die. Makes me scratch my head and ask, did he really just say that?"

The medium of traditional Renaissance triptychs signals the overarching criticism of the church. Teraoka's denunciation in each painting is obvious. Walls of churches decay in the background, while in the foreground nuns discover they have male parts. And he doesn't stop at the church. Subtly throughout the work are images related to the Arab Spring or to Pussy Riot. "After all, power abuse is not limited to the church," he says.

Inversion of the Sacred at the MAC will be the first time six of these sizable triptychs will be on display together. Claude Albritton, the museum's owner, discovered the work of Teraoka in the '80s at a joint show of his work, with Robert Colescott and David Bates.

"His work has always been incredibly interesting," Albritton says. "But I think this show is important because we haven't fully addressed this issue of the Catholic Church's abuse scandals."

The MAC has earned a reputation for presenting thought-provoking work and refusing to shy away from challenging or risqué topics. For Teraoka's exhibit, Albritton plans to bring in pews so that visitors can sit and contemplate the work. Inversion of the Sacred opens Saturday, March 15 with a reception from 5:30-7:30 p.m. and Teraoka will host an art talk March 20 at 6:30 p.m. in the space. Albritton says he's looking for a pulpit.

This exhibit remains on view through May 3, along with Cauleen Smith's Space Station Rainbow Ihnfinity and Val Curry's Universe.