TETSUYA ISHIDA, Prisoner, 1999. Acrylic on board. 40 5/8 × 57 3/8 inches (103 × 145.6 cm). © Tetsuya Ishida Estate. Courtesy the artist and Gagosian.

…it was a self-portrait. I tried to make myself—my weak self, my pitiful self, my anxious self—into a joke or something funny that could be laughed at.”
― Tetsuya Ishida

The Gagosian Gallery in New York City presents an illuminating solo effort by an artist whose work conveys the dark complexities of being young in Japan’s recent period known as the Lost Decade. My Anxious Self is a show that transcends the visual ideas of one Tetsuya Ishida, a most blunt and direct response to what became an economic crisis that devastatingly claimed the lives of its many citizens in the years 1991 into 2001. In more than eighty paintings, the artist honestly depicts his inner demons, captivated through his many self-portraits, giving us a granular yet vast scope of what the artist and his fellow “salaryman” was actually feeling and experiencing during this time.

Born in Yaizu, Shizuoka Prefecture as the youngest of four sons into a middle-class family, Ishida’s initial inspirations came about after viewing the work of Social Realist illustrator Ben Shahn in 1981. Ishida knew that he wanted to become an artist as a means of expression and his work touches a note on his feelings toward isolation, consumerism and the personal experiences of Japan’s youth, all done within the context of technology, industrial machinery and animal forms. His interest in social and human rights came about when he was 11 by entering a work on school bullying at a district-lead manga competition. After high school, he studied and earned a degree in Visual Communication from Musashino Art University and worked for a brief period as graphic designer before deciding on a solo career as an artist and taking mundane jobs to support himself. As he once commented in his diary, “I wanted to be like Ben Shahn…”

TETSUYA ISHIDA. Untitled, 1998. Acrylic on canvas, in 2 parts. Overall: 57 3/8 × 81 1/8 inches (145.6 × 206 cm). © Tetsuya Ishida Estate. Courtesy the artist, Kyuryudo Art Publishing, and Gagosian.

The expressive images that grace the paintings of Tetsuya Ishida are not his own, but of a unique representation of hikikomori, a phenomenon in Japan where individuals (young and old) live as self-imposed hermits, devoid of all contact with other humans and the outside world. In each painting one sees office workers in suits that are seemingly unable to speak, with facial expressions liken to automatons – most sad in their appearances yet focused on the challenge of working in a society ruled by corporations. With titles such as Waiting for a Chance and Desperately Lonely, one can see in each gallery what Ishida is trying to express: an imagination that is dystopic and out of control, yet with an empathetic eye and a humorous side all the same. The visual process is quite daunting as we come across these individuals taken over by the very thing they are consumed by – all shown with stark imagery, scope and painterly detail. 

The work, Refuel Meal, 1996, has the elements of a George Tooker painting: three robotic soda fountain jerks using what appears to be gas pumps, feeding the usual daily lunch to its three office counterparts. The faces are the same – possessive in their manner which is most dark and frightful, all the while existing in an environment of cold steel and brick – a factory within a factory.

TETSUYA ISHIDA, Gripe, 1996. Acrylic on board. 23 3/8 × 16 5/8 inches (59.4 × 42 cm). © Tetsuya Ishida Estate. Photo: Martin Wong. Courtesy Gagosian

Another piece, Gripe, 1996, is quite intense: a kneeling office worker with cap grimacing as his lobster-like hands are being held by mysterious figures in lab coats – his pleading is of assistance or just trying to pull away from what might become a nightmare as yellow tickets seem to float about in all directions.

The third piece, Prisoner, 1999, is a frightful yet humorous reference to the day-to-day life of school: the individual becomes the institution or is maybe engulfed by it, as the title suggests – all the same, a large group of his classmates gather around and watches as the grand spectacle unfolds.

The fourth piece Untitled, 1998, presents a detailed account of how self-isolation can ultimately lead one to thoughts of nausea and suffocation.  What may appear to be a common bulk bed in a room becomes the entrenchment of the individual’s engulfing possessions – most organized and evenly arranged into a prison-like state that could easily resemble the many cardboard inhabited by the homeless. 

Refuel Meal, 1996. Acrylic on board, in 2 parts. Overall: 57 5/16 × 81 1/8 inches (145.6 × 206 cm.) © Tetsuya Ishida Estate. Courtesy the artist, Shizuoka Prefectural Museum of Art, and Gagosian.

Gazing through this vast array of work, I was amazed on how much this artist has accomplished in such a short period of time – I am elated to have come across such a unique and timely relevant exhibition. 

This exhibition will be on display till October 21st; Gagosian Gallery is located on 555 West 24th Street in New York City.

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