REVIEWING CUTIE AND THE BOXER
It starts as they stick candles into two mini cheesecakes for his 80th birthday. Ushio and Noriko Shinohara met in SoHo when he was 41 and she was 19. As a young artist recently emigrated from Japan, she was besotted by his immersion in the art world and wanted to see him as a mentor. One night, he took her home to his bed with no sheets and no blankets. She obliged, seeing the barrenness as an emblem for the stingy glamour of New York she looked forward to knowing. It also seemed fitting for Ushio, an important player in the Neo-Dadaist movement which founded itself on an aversion to standardized aesthetics of beauty and living.
Ushio is a Japanese artist who works in sculpture and (primarily action-) painting. His canvases are large and he hangs them against a wall built with a lot of give, like the floors of a gymnastics club. He wails on his canvases, wearing boxing gloves with sponges strung onto them, sopping wet with ink and paint. He’s got swimming goggles on and the sagging layers of his 80 year old body ripple with every hit.
Noriko initially saw her connection to Ushio as a channel of influence for her own art-making but discovered quickly that their relationship was never equal. He would always be the one with an established name, and she’d always put him first. At the beginning, we watch Noriko play the role of Ushio’s assistant. She is merely going through the motions.
As the film wears on and while Ushio is on a trip to sell some work in Japan, we are invited into Noriko’s own artistic practice where we discover her discomfort about the amicable subjugation she feels in relation to her husband. There is love, but there is loathing and she is as detailed about her regrets as a woman on her deathbed.
Her new series is a semi-autobiographic comic of sorts wherein she reconfigures her own alter ego (Cutie) to rise above Ushio (Bullie). The work chronicles her youthful ambition, his boisterous, alcoholic behaviour and the things she’s given up and lost over the course of their nearly 40-year relationship. Using a calligraphic painting technique, the (often nude) figures of Cutie resemble the plumpish and seductive women drawn by the hand of Titian.
This documentary by Zachary Heinzerling captures Ushio as he works to put together his latest exhibition—one which the gallery owner has agreed to showcase Noriko’s new series in. I’ve never seen art manhandled in the way it is here. It is clumsy, gorgeous and hilarious as it brings us to think about the physical reverence we give to objects according to their perceived value—historical, emotional, cultural, and largely economical.
Unlike a lot of visual art documentaries, this film doesn’t feature any interviews about the two main subjects nor do Ushio or Noriko ever address the camera or the people behind it. They are direct only with each other. It’s at the same time heartwarming and tumultuous—their passion for each other is unfaltering. The narrative blooms out of their everyday life where questions of power, love and success lie somewhere among their collective past and their individual bodies of work.