Gagosian Quarterly

May 25, 2022

Tetsuya Ishida:Painter of Modern Life

Yūko Hasegawa explores the fantastical convergences and amalgamations in Tetsuya Ishida’s paintings, their connections to manga and advertising imagery, and the shift that occurred in the artist’s work as he moved from acrylic to oil paint in 2000.

Tetsuya Ishida, Waiting for a Chance, 1999, acrylic on board, in 2 parts, overall: 57 ¼ × 81 ⅛ inches (145.6 × 206.1 cm)

Tetsuya Ishida, Waiting for a Chance, 1999, acrylic on board, in 2 parts, overall: 57 ¼ × 81 ⅛ inches (145.6 × 206.1 cm)

Yuko Hasegawa

Yūko Hasegawa is director of the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, Japan, and a professor at the Graduate School of Global Arts, Tokyo University of the Arts. She has been honored with the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, France (2015), Ordem de Rio Branco, Brazil (2017), and Japan Commissioner for Cultural Affairs Award (2020).

One of the appeals of Tetsuya Ishida’s works is the accessibility of his images.

They teem with the dark, quiet, and subdued air of apathy and regression unique to comics, reflecting the state of mind of the Japanese youth of the artist’s generation. Born in 1973, Ishida (who died in 2005) spent his twenties in the period of recession known as “the lost decade” after the Japanese economic bubble burst in 1991. The employment rate of new grads fell to 60 percent, and by 1998 the suicide rate exceeded thirty thousand annually. By the latter half of the ’90s, many young people were unable to find full-time jobs: they lost hope for their future and began to drop out of society, their retreat accelerated by an environment overloaded with media. The number of hikikomori (unemployed shut-ins unable to negotiate the outside world) who had lost the ability to communicate swelled.

The hikikomori shared a chaotic vision of the warping of the normal relationship between their interior worlds and the world outside—between self and society—which is reflected in Ishida’s works. During the ten short years of activity covered here, Ishida made some two hundred paintings and a plethora of sketches. Here, I offer an analytical examination of the works’ character and how they reflect their time.

1. Convergence

One of the defining characteristics of Ishida’s oeuvre is the image of a surrealistic “convergence.” Young men, their faces strikingly similar from work to work, appear to merge with the various things that surround them, such as beds, airplanes, trucks, dressers, microscopes, and even animals. The young men appear bewildered by the situation, yet they have the expressions of martyrs determined to accept their fate. The people in these works seem to be enduring the process of physical transformation amid the sweetness and bitterness of concealing themselves. Ishida’s paintings started as self-portraits, and their subjects came to take on an iconic personality with which viewers can easily identify.

These subjects’ convergences with different things appear forced, and it seems that the only way these men can survive their transformation is to accept it—to come to terms with others, and with the outside world.

In Japan’s manga and anime culture, there are many characters that are amalgams of humans and machines, such as composite robots, or the masked Kamen Rider, who is a man melded with a grasshopper. Behind this natural acceptance of amalgamation is the influence of animism, which acknowledges the existence of spirits in all nonhuman things, such as machines and animals. These join with human spirits, or the brain joins with a robotic exoskeleton, and each is enhanced. The influence of this culture on Ishida is evident in the fantastic combinations he presents.

[Ishida’s] works recall the self-deprecating jokes of Japanese comedians rather than the ironic effect of social criticism and caricature.

As a method of psychological survival, Ishida integrated self-portraits (of his alter ego) and symbols of social repression, creating ridiculous convergences that relativize his situation and make it a “target of laughter.” The following note he left explains this process: “I, too, can’t really choose my environment. To fit in, I must change myself, and if I refuse to, I am made to feel fear and loneliness and anxiety. When I try to express these feelings of anxiety, I think of the cold urban condition. However, that was created by people, and I know that I cannot refuse, so I try to make the situation bearable with gags, self-mockery, and irony.”

In other words, his works recall the self-deprecating jokes of Japanese comedians rather than the ironic effect of social criticism and caricature. Employing a technique similar to sublimation, he laughs things off with ridiculous images that diminish him to release the viewer’s anxiety or restraint.

To portray these amalgamations, he matches the size of the human body to that of the target object with which it is to be unified; for example, Prisoner (1999) shows the enormous body of a man stuffed through a school-like building. How he got there is a mystery, but a building that is a “school” has become his straitjacket, restricting the man’s movements. His fingers stretch forth from the balcony and front door, and his head from his nose up sticks through the wall; this fragile balance of size surpasses mere human sadness and anxiety: he appears bloated and “monstrostic” with an intensity as if the entire scene were screaming. In Can’t Fly Anymore (1996), a man is stuck inside an immobile playground airplane with a propeller attached to his head and his arms timidly outstretched over the rusted wings. Ishida wrote that this was “an airplane in the ruins of an abandoned amusement park,” as indicated by the cute baby-bear pattern on its wings. This static airplane emphasizes the contradiction of flightless flight, and the figure’s pose of reserved aspiration that also looks like resignation conjures the futility of ambition, rendering the scene powerful.

Tetsuya Ishida: Painter of Modern Life

Tetsuya Ishida, Prisoner, 1999, acrylic on board, 14 ⅜ × 20 ¼ inches (36.4 × 51.5 cm)

Tetsuya Ishida: Painter of Modern Life

Tetsuya Ishida, Can’t Fly Anymore, 1996, acrylic on board, 40 ⅝ × 57 ⅜ inches (103 × 145.6 cm)

More partial amalgams are seen in Supermarket (1996), in which the protagonist’s arms have been made into conveyor belts that mechanically serve up products in a supermarket; and in Guchi (Complaint) (1996), in which the hands of the ticket-taking stationmaster are crab claws. These are symbols of how we are transformed by the coerced repetition of labor and acts in our daily lives.

Ishida sporadically changed jobs, shifting from illustration and advertising to painting, and his experience of reading the sensitivities and symbols of the times while he drifted through society is limned in these merged figures.

2. Characteristics of Expression: Composition and Color

The defining characteristics of Ishida’s works are their hues and their elaborate detail. Ishida painted boards a uniform bluish white first, then manipulated the effect by overpainting in acrylic colors. Warm color saturation is restrained, and the main elements of blues, whites, and grays seem to be painted in a grisaille fashion. The scenes have the cold, gloomy air of the ocean floor. The details are elaborately depicted—for example, the weave of the straw in the tatami mats in Recalled (1998) is painstakingly painted, as are the textures of Styrofoam and cardboard. The cool tones and intricate detail are reminiscent of early Netherlandish painting, which, like Ishida’s work, is related to a process of prayer. Ishida explained he was “strongly attracted to artists who were like saints,” fervently believing that “they are saving the world with every single brushstroke.” Such a concept appealed to Ishida, as it spoke to his longing for salvation and healing. In sixteenth-century northern Netherlandish painting, saints and figures are precisely and sensitively rendered with little expression, showing just a hint of kindness or sorrow. Similarly, Ishida’s figures, with their round faces and big eyes, appear charming and pitiful, while their expressions seem indifferent or absorbed. This pure formality without any relation to the real world gives the same symbolic impression to viewers as the Netherlandish paintings.

Tetsuya Ishida: Painter of Modern Life

Tetsuya Ishida, Recalled, 1998, acrylic on board, in 2 parts, overall: 57 ½ × 81 ⅛ inches (145.6 × 206 cm)

Works featuring multiplied subjects especially reveal formal composition, with the characters engaged in performance-like choreographed actions. In Untitled (2) (1998), which depicts the self-destructive shut-in lifestyle of a hikikomori man, and Waiting for a Chance (1999), which shows a patient sitting on a bed shaped like a car surrounded by hospital staff, men with identical faces and similarly downcast expressions gaze in different directions. Their faces in quarter-profile, the subjects don’t look directly at the viewer, for the most part, nor do they make eye contact with the other people in the work. In each of the paintings, the subjects occupy a scenic space of isolation, so that even when they are in a crowd, they are solitary. We viewers cannot imagine what things the man is seeing or hearing. That is because he is not a real person, but thoroughly composed as an image.

In Ishida’s works, there is a simple relationship between the poses of the people placed in the center of a scene and the objects (furniture, elevators, cash registers, etc.) that surround them. These compositions recall illustrations used in advertisements. The people shown don’t appear in real spaces: hence they are literally confined. The dim and quiet sense of stillness gives an impression of approachability and solace to viewers who are afflicted with a certain psychological stress or trauma.

Tetsuya Ishida: Painter of Modern Life

Tetsuya Ishida, Untitled (2), 1998, acrylic on board, in 2 parts, overall: 81 ⅛ × 57 ¼ inches (206 × 145.6 cm)

From a certain point, Ishida said he was not depicting a “tale” but was single-mindedly focused on the scene, and that he was painting to draw out the power of those scenes. The works do not depict “real” spaces. Ishida created these combined images in an instinctive manner—pulling from the everyday in a practically subconscious process. This allows the viewer to momentarily, intuitively perceive the humor in the images before starting to explore the connections and incongruities among different objects.

Ishida’s works result not from the artist’s encounter with surrealist images, but from his experience in creating eye-catching illustrations for advertisements.

3. Themes, Sense of Stagnation, and Dreams in Which One Floats in the Repressive Society 

A large number of Ishida’s early works seem to share the same theme—that of regulated society and Japan’s collectivism, frequently represented here by the image of the “salaryman” (white-collar worker). His individuality and freedom repressed, he is often depicted as surrounded by working men in suits and neckties. Ishida portrays the worker in various situations: mid-commute, eating lunch, overwhelmed with work, shopping at a convenience store on the way home, etc.

A man surrounded by people waiting in line to quickly eat a Japanese fast-food lunch of a beef bowl; a man running as if on a treadmill atop a conveyor belt in a factory, surrounded by busy workers; men in suits lying as if dead on the steps of an escalator while workers in white reach out as if checking the quality of each product: these images are lined up together over and over, so their theme is emphasized simply.

Tetsuya Ishida: Painter of Modern Life

Ben Shahn, Supreme Court of California: Mooney Series, 1932, gouache on paper, 16 × 24 inches (40.7 × 61 cm) © 2022 Estate of Ben Shahn/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, New York

Tetsuya Ishida: Painter of Modern Life

Ben Shahn, Handball, 1939, gouache on paperboard, 22 ¾ × 31 ¼ inches (57.8 × 79.4 cm), Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn, 1966 © 2022 Estate of Ben Shahn/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Cathy Carver

Ishida, who possessed a strong social consciousness, was influenced by Ben Shahn, who depicted people from the perspective of social awareness. Also affecting his work was the fact of his being from Yaizu, where the Daigo Fukuryū Maru left port before being exposed to nuclear fallout. His social criticism is not direct but circuitous, shown through his exaggerated humorous depictions.

From those humorous and pathetic early works, painted in a clear, illustration-like style, until about 1999, when his theme took a manneristic shift, his works showed a tendency toward escapism. Though the image of a hospital in Waiting for a Chance may have been inspired by the regular hospital visits Ishida made when suffering a liver ailment, the car beds can be understood as having a variety of meanings; both patients and machines, they are now decommissioned “vehicles” that were forced to run endlessly without rest until they broke down and were brought in for repair.

In 2000 Ishida switched to oil on canvas, and his paintings became larger and pictorially more complicated. Tentacles (2004), which shows a man in a fetus-like pose, as if returning to his mother’s womb, his body enveloped in a transparent veil of jellyfish tentacles, exemplifies the increasingly fantastic and transparent quality of Ishida’s painting, and the value of the oil paints and the sense of depth support the theme. Deep Sea Fish (2003) blends overlapped transparent layers depicting multiple scenes of a car mirror, the interior of a room, and the outside.

Tetsuya Ishida: Painter of Modern Life

Tetsuya Ishida, Deep-Sea Fish, 2003, acrylic and oil on canvas, 23 ½ × 35 ½ inches (60 × 90.1 cm)

Tetsuya Ishida: Painter of Modern Life

Tetsuya Ishida, Untitled, 2004, acrylic and oil on canvas, 35 ¾ × 46 inches (91 × 116.7 cm)

Painted the year before he died, Untitled (2004) shows a bed in a room built above a small river gulley, perhaps symbolizing Ishida’s mental state in his last years. On the bed are books that appear to be from an author’s writing space, and just below the bed, the river, moss, and sand make a tiny landscape. Half inside and half outside, light streams in through the window and is reflected off the river. This work can be seen as Ishida’s last self-portrait—painted of himself, for himself—as he neared the end.


Ishida’s works poke at the weaknesses and darkness hidden inside their viewers. The artist achieves this not overtly but subtly, by presenting situations that evoke both empathy and fear in viewers.

Perhaps Ishida wanted this fear to open a pathway into the psyche and allow awareness and understanding on another level.

If Ishida is the “Painter” in “The Painter of Modern Life” that Baudelaire wrote of, by painting unique yet familiar allegories of society’s pathologies, he encourages every viewer of these pathologies to become self-aware and overcome them.

Artwork by Tetsuya Ishida © Estate of Tetsuya Ishida; photos: Martin Wong; text © Yūko Hasegawa, translated from the Japanese by Junko Kawakami; originally published in Tetsuya Ishida (Hong Kong: Gagosian, 2014)

Tetsuya Ishida, Untitled, 2001, acrylic on canvas, 51 ¼ × 76 ⅜ inches (130.3 × 194 cm)

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