Artists suffer for their art, but not as much as their wives, especially if they are artists, too. Back in the ’60s, Ushio Shinohara, a mohawked proto-punk with an assaultive style and a taste for pop art, action painting, and happenings of the day, made the move from Tokyo to New York City with mixed success. There, in 1972, he met 19-year-old Noriko, an art student who was smitten by this hell-raising seeming visionary, and married him.
Now Ushio celebrates his 80th birthday in a dumpy Brooklyn loft, still producing the same kind of stuff. Noriko, 59, remains by his side, a combination assistant and nursemaid who barely puts up with his habits, perhaps because she is engaged in her own projects. In this alternately whimsical and grim documentary, Zachary Heinzerling relates the couple’s down-and-out, inspiring saga, which slyly comments on the evolution and ironies of the past half century in contemporary art.
The film’s form at times evokes Ushio’s trademark painting style, in which he dons a pair of paint-saturated boxing gloves (hence “the Boxer”) and whales the tar out of a 20-foot-long stretch of canvas. The chaotic onslaught of blows results in a surprisingly subtle painting, kind of a cross between the aesthetics of Mike Tyson and Jackson Pollock. The film, too, tosses out seemingly random shots, combining scenes of the couple’s present-day miseries with archival news items about Ushio’s splashy arrival in Manhattan (“The most famous starving artist in New York,” says one) and disturbing home movies of Ushio drunk and out of control with his friends. But Heinzerling also interjects Noriko’s artwork, animating episodes from her ongoing, comic book-like story of “Cutie,” a naïve teenage artist who meets a boorish would-be genius and sacrifices her life to his debauches and delusions of grandeur. Painting well, it seems, is the best revenge.
Nonetheless, something has held them together over the years. And it probably wasn’t their son Alex, now middle-aged, who drifts into their loft and guzzles a glass of wine despite Noriko’s protests. Alex does his own paintings, drawing on a childhood destroyed by his father’s lifestyle, which he now halfheartedly imitates. His sad state recalls that of William Burroughs’s doomed, multiply-addicted son haunting the margins of Howard Brookner’s 1983 documentary about the Beat novelist.
But as the cliché goes, the couple’s real children are their artworks, and in that regard things are looking up. A representative from the Guggenheim drops by to consider buying one of Ushio’s pieces for the museum. And a gallery has agreed to put on a show of both their works. Together Ushio and Noriko help set up the exhibit, and in the context of a hip Chelsea space, their separate endeavors meld surprisingly well. Ushio’s huge boxing canvases and his oversize papier-mâché motorcycles (reminiscent of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth’s caricatures from the ’60s) don’t look so ramshackle under the track lighting, and Noriko’s wall-size illustrated stories, delicate and raunchy, suggest the tradition of narratives painted on Japanese screens. Insuperably youthful (or in Ushio’s case, puerile), they don’t look much different than they did back when they first started out – though for the gnomish Ushio that is no compliment. Maybe suffering for one’s art –and the art of someone else – is good for the soul.