Observers of the world economy call the 1990s in Japan the Lost Decade. Following what the Washington Post would describe as “an orgy of easy credit and speculation” at the end of the 1980s, residential land values in urban areas became so inflated that, as a former New York Times business editor would argue years later, the “Imperial Palace in downtown Tokyo was believed to be worth as much as the entire state of California.” When the bubble finally burst, in 1991, unemployment and bankruptcies rose. Suicides increased as well. As with many economic calamities, adolescents and young adults were especially impacted, having to support themselves on low wages that were hard to come by. They became collectively known as the “Employment Ice Age Generation.”
It was during the Lost Decade that a Japanese psychiatrist coined the term “hikikomori” to describe the severe and prolonged social withdrawal that was afflicting a small percentage of the population, who refused to leave their bedrooms, even for work or school, and had begun replacing face-to-face interaction with communication via what were then the novel advancements of personal computers, cellphones and the World Wide Web. It was also during this time that the Tokyo-based artist Tetsuya Ishida, who was born in 1973 and channeled his era’s isolation and anxiety into nightmarish visions, began painting seriously. Between 1995 and 2005, while working intermittent jobs — in a factory that made packaging for snacks, as a night security guard — he made about 200 paintings. Ishida died at age 31 after being struck by a train in a Tokyo suburb. He achieved little recognition in his lifetime, and his works have not been easily seen by Western audiences. This week, Gagosian gallery on West 24th Street in New York will open the most comprehensive showing to date of the artist’s paintings in the States, organized by the curator Cecilia Alemani.
Ishida’s works have aged remarkably well in the years since his death, in part because his recurring themes have become nearly universal conditions of life in the 21st century: loneliness and alienation, which he described as “inescapable”; the threat of rabid consumerism to individual identity; addiction to technology and automation; and, as Ishida put it in his notebooks, “my weak self, my pitiful self, my anxious self.” Take his painting “Hothouse” from 2003. He addresses the hikikomori phenomenon explicitly, though his subject is more solitude generally. A boy is in his room, empty bottles littering the floor. The ashtray is full of cigarettes. An outlet is visible, crammed with chargers belonging to electronic devices that are, tellingly, not depicted. The boy has no company except for his radiator, rendered as a human companion cradling him as they both sleep, the peacefulness of their slumber only underscoring the sense of an isolation so complete it has become routine.
Ishida called the figures who populate his works “self-portraits of other people.” (“I have strong empathy for others’ pain, suffering, sorrow, anxiety and solitude,” he’d write in another notebook entry.) He often painted young men, in suits or other professional attire, with expressions of vague concern as they engage intimately, grotesquely with some usually mundane aspect of modernity. Grocery stores are a recurring setting, a site of existential dread and a platform for Ishida’s dry sense of humor. In 1996’s “Supermarket,” a shopper at a checkout counter looks on helplessly as his arms, which have transformed into conveyor belts, deliver products to the register. In an untitled painting from 1997, a man who has removed several boxes of food from an overstuffed shelf in a snack aisle places his own body among the packages on display, as if overwhelmed by the options before him.
In an introduction to a book published to coincide with the show, Ishida’s older brother Michiaki recalls going through Tetsuya’s wallet after his death, and discovering several American one-dollar bills. “Perhaps it was his wish to go to New York, the center of contemporary art, one day,” he writes. At the very least, his works will resonate with an American audience lurching uncomfortably out of a pandemic that, for a time anyway, left a lot of people more isolated than usual. Ishida has often been described as a surrealist, and he is, but his works also feel topical. It’s hard not to see a painting like 2004’s “Conquered” — which depicts a charging cellphone, a news clip playing on its screen, violently embedded in a human face — as some kind of warning from 20 years in the past, a prophecy from an artist who, either despite his anxiety or because of it, saw where the world was headed with startling clarity.