Under the Company President's Umbrella, 1996 Credit: Michael Tropea; courtesy of Wrightwood 659

As I walk to Wrightwood 659 in the early afternoon, I hear the sound of recess coming from the school to my left, but I don’t see the students. I just see the brick building where they spend most of their day. After a few moments I realize that they are on the roof of the school, where a tall wrought iron fence wraps around where they spend recess. Their voices bounce off buildings that are a barrier on either side. I imagine their sneakers pounding the artificial grass where the brick and iron shield their view from any trees. I imagine that they hear a honking car horn.

While they play, I enter Wrightwood gallery. Like the children I just passed, whose urban school life is confined and industrial, painter Tetsuya Ishida’s first retrospective in the United States, “Self-Portrait of Other,” exemplifies an industrial city life that is riddled with economic crises, resulting in a generation who have become (quite literally) working machines with little to no leisure time.

The 1996 piece Under the Company President’s Umbrella (Shacho no Kasa no Shita) presents several figures who are uniformly dressed and hanging from a carousel. The figures, though they’re supposed to be enjoying leisure time, are merely feigning fun. In many of Ishida’s works, the backgrounds have a dim grey atmosphere. The employees never seem to escape their dedication to productivity and remain in a cycle that disconnects them from the idea of play. It reminds me of the children on the roof next door.

In 1991 there were mass layoffs in Japan, better known as the “Lost Decade,” which influenced a drastic change in the people who lived there. The effect of mass consumption contributed to many hikikomori, young people who isolate themselves from anyone outside of their family, and are now considered Japan’s “missing million.” The third floor of the gallery features Ishida’s depiction of the hikikomori. Ishida conflates the figures with their interiors, essentially causing the people to become one with their ordinary household objects, transforming into a permanent fixture in their home. Body Fluids from 2004 features a grey-blue figure in the shape of a sink. Tears stream from the face as the hands fold near the rim of the sink. An extinct marine trilobite floats in the sink, partially submerged in the tears.

The piece Abortion shows a figure lying on a bed while another sits on the edge. This piece has more color, though is still dismal. An image of a baby, almost like a shadow, is painted in grey on the floor. A creek flows below the bed frame as a reminder of the outside world. Ishida’s generation appears lost and trapped as they search for an ease to their afflictions.

Ishida paints portraits, mostly male-identifying figures, and all clone-like. In almost all of his pieces, the painter depicts these clones, as they work, learn, or are trapped in the revolving door of automated societies, resulting in deindividualism.

The exhibition is vast and full of paintings that portray a dystopian society focused on technology whose citizens lose all sense of identity. The works range from the ‘90s to the early 2000s and vary in size and framing. Ishida’s sudden death in 2005 at 31 years old brings another component of heaviness to the exhibition. It’s not an easy collection to digest. It’s devastating and disturbing. Largely unknown to the western world, Ishida has a massive cult following in Japan and Europe. His style remained the same until his death. Working with imagery of hybrid machine-humans, people becoming one with insects, planes, boxes, and machinery, he paints an image of Japan’s “Lost Decade” and the toll of an economic crises. v