During Japan’s “Lost Decade,” a prolonged recession that marked the 1990s, Tetsuya Ishida emerged as an artist. While other Japanese artists embraced the “Kawaii” cuteness movement in response to the tumultuous time, Ishida took a different route. He didn’t seek to create a utopia with his art. Instead, he delved into the existential distress that his generation experienced during those challenging years. His art is all about loneliness, isolation, crises of identity and desperation.
In a career that lasted just over ten years but was tragically cut short by his death in 2005, Ishida left behind a legacy of over two hundred paintings that capture the sense of disillusionment among the country’s youth. Though he received little recognition during his lifetime and remained largely unknown outside of Japan, his artworks were featured in the first auction of East Asian contemporary art at Christie’s.
Marking the fiftieth anniversary of his birth, Ishida’s first solo exhibition in New York is on view now at Gagosian through October 21. “My Anxious Self” explores the profound sense of estrangement and the loss of self that were endemic to the era. Curated by Cecilia Alemani, the show features more than eighty of Ishida’s paintings, dating from 1994 to 2004, showing the range of styles through which he explored his iconic Surrealist themes.
“The profound humanity of Ishida’s paintings addresses themes that are not only universal—disconnection, alienation, and despair—but speak to the exact age in which we live in the post-pandemic era,” Nick Simunovic, senior director of Gagosian in Asia, told Observer.
The exhibition’s design mirrors Ishida’s era, with “My Anxious Self” divided into five thematic parts. In the first section, “Waiting for a Chance,” Ishida’s artwork sheds light on Japan’s “Salaryman” culture, in which office workers show deep loyalty to their companies. In his intricate paintings, Ishida depicts assembly line workers, consumerism and the disciplined worker-consumer dynamic. His art vividly portrays individuals who have surrendered their identities, merging with the machinery of the corporate world.
Refuel Meal (1996) shows us three seemingly identical workers being fed through a machine gun. In Interview (1998), the interviewers are depicted as colossal microscopes, getting ready to scrutinize an unfortunate job applicant during the Employment Ice Age. These paintings capture the dehumanizing impact of corporate culture, where individuals are often belittled in a giant industrial machine.
Most of the faces in Ishida’s paintings appear identical—a stone-faced young man with short hair. Some critics believe that Ishida was painting self-portraits, but in a notebook entry from 1999, Ishida called them “self-portraits of others.” He wrote: “At first, 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 … As I continued to think about this, I expanded it to include consumers, city dwellers, workers and the Japanese people. The figures in the picture expanded toward people that I can feel.”
“Ishida is translating this strong sense of the collective body from the 1990s in his paintings, so you can often find the loss of subjectivity in the individuals he painted,” Alemani tells me. “In a way, he became the subject of his painting, but also it was a product of the recession. You can see that he is depicting a malaise or disease that affected people in Japan.”
In the second gallery, “Desperately Lonely,” Ishida turns his attention to moments of isolation, often in indoor settings that seem to blend with the outside world or are invaded by nature. For instance, in Plant-Eating Dragon (2004), a man is shown wrapped in a blanket that resembles a grassy field in his home. Surrounded by drug paraphernalia, he appears disconnected from the outside world, longing for a connection with nature.
The third gallery, “Helpless Metamorphoses,” invites visitors on a Kafkaesque adventure where human bodies merge with animals or objects. These paintings ask viewers to ponder over the lines between human beings and the environment, sparking thoughts about identity and change. In Offspring (1999), a child is born from prehistoric reptiles in the hospital, and the powerful symbolism found in the painting implies a declining era with no vision and full of despair. These unsettling and absurd images align with the surreal and melancholic themes present in the works of modern Japanese writers like Mahoko Yoshimoto and Haruki Murakami, who write about a society marked by these psychological struggles.
“Neo-Tokyo” has paintings of city scenes, movies, and manga that inspire Ishida’s work, and how these cultural influences shape his vision. Japan’s bubble economy had a significant influence on the artists life and art. The 1990s were marked by economic challenges, natural disasters, and terrorism in Japan, all of which Ishida witnessed and incorporated into his art.
In the final gallery, “Restless Dream,” paintings about maternity and childhood, dreams and death appear. Alemani noted that while Ishida did not depict many women throughout his career; when he did, they often represented partners, mothers and nurses, symbolizing universal ideas of family and caring. “In the final gallery with the motherhood and childhood characters, it almost feels like this is something that is not resolved in the artist’s career and life, so it is not so evident in his work,” says Alemani.
Alemani adds that Ishida’s evolving style in his later paintings shows a shift toward more dreamlike imagery. “Towards the end of his life, he started using oil paints instead of acrylic, and that brought a shift in the colors. His earlier works had earthy tones, like reds and browns. But with oil paint, he moved towards softer shades of gray and blue. This delicate palette was achieved by applying layers upon layers of paint on the same canvas.”
Ishida also explored ideas like the nature of life and death in his paintings. In Characters (2003), the painter depicted a naked man lying on a white bed surrounded by falling leaves. Inside his body, there are smaller and paler versions of himself tucked in, like matryoshka dolls, with the tiniest one sitting up as if the soul is leaving the physical body.
When he died at the age of 31 in a tragic train accident in a Tokyo suburb, his older brother Michiaki found that his sibling’s wallet contained several American dollar bills. In the book published with the exhibition, Michiaki wrote: “Perhaps it was his wish to go to New York, the center of contemporary art, one day.”
His relevance here today, and in this moment, is undeniable. Ishida might not have made it to the city in his lifetime, but the themes in his work certainly did. Given the global spike in unemployment rates and domestic economic challenges, the exhibition will no doubt resonate with the American audiences with whom Ishida never had the opportunity to connect.