A LETTER TO KING TERRY
FROM GAIL QUAGLIATA
King Terry, or, less royally, Mr. Teruhiko Yumura,
I was not familiar with the specific term heta-uma before I spent an awkward hour at an art school alumni event held, fortuitously, at The Hole during Theo A. Rosenblum and Chelsea Seltzer’s giddy, gaudy exhibition, Two Heads are Better than One. So as to forgo attempting conversation with a bunch of strangers, I passed the evening gazing deeply into Rosenblum and Seltzer’s glorious visual puns and jokes, many of which involved the dismantling of painfully earnest source material with carefully considered, ridiculous additions.
On ViewThe Hole
February 14 – May 17, 2012
Heta-uma, as an aesthetic principle, can have a number of different definitions for those of us who do not speak Japanese, but it most generally translates to “bad-good.” As a style, it is raw and crude in technique (bad), yet this lack of polish allows the artist’s intention and the urgency of the message to register more clearly (good). I understand that you made this term famous, King Terry, in reference to the illustrations you began making in the 1970s.
The bulk of Rosenblum and Seltzer’s exhibition is dedicated to complicated, repurposed artwork and plays on words made ornate and three-dimensional. The artists have added their own lurid, bizarre, hilarious Pop imagery to saccharine, muted prints that look like unwanted leftovers from a starving artist’s painting sale at the Fishkill Ramada. Bland angels in repose unwittingly become part of a hallucinatory Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper car accident. “Mothership” (2011) is a large-scale sculpture depicting a beatific Mother Teresa cradling an infant, her torso emerging from a spaceship and its tractor beam forming the trunk of an upside-down tree. The execution of this work proves that Rosenblum and Seltzer are accomplished artisans, betraying the discipline underlying their work, in spite of the seemingly casual spontaneity of their subject matter.
Since you, King Terry, are credited with the birth of the term heta-uma, I’m curious what it means to you now, when so many artists seem to be trying to affect this “bad-good-ness,” this almost-but-not-quite-inadvertently raw, dark humor. Rosenblum and Seltzer’s show features a wall full of drawings, which take the unpolished, unrefined aspect of the heta so far that they were created on scraps of paper. This all begs the question: does the hyper-aware pursuit of a bad-good, unskilled-masterful aesthetic in fact make that pursuit less innocent? I wonder if you have any reason to walk the visual gauntlet that is the art fair circuit, where you would now find yourself confronted with so many examples of the heta-uma aesthetic marker.
I understand that in Japan in the 1970s such free, rough illustration constituted a rebellion against the perfect, clean stylistic leanings dominating the culture. But what might this mean for my generation? I ask as someone who herself creates work that could easily be categorized as some permutation of your bad-good, and as someone who is surrounded by other goofy craftsmen whose unskilled hands pretend to hide expensive art educations. I think, King Terry, that work like yours sketched out the template for this generation, allowing us to make this type of overtly critical, loud art. But what does our commentary actually mean when our loose visual style has been wholly embraced, even co-opted, by popular culture? How deeply ingrained in the popular consciousness must heta-uma be before it’s just the thing this generation does reflexively—and when will it stop? Will it stop?
And what is the next heta-uma? Does the appropriate rebellion for our moment demand an immediate rejection of humor? Some sort of return to Albrecht Dürer-class perfectionism, detail, and solemnity, across which the following generation can, in turn, scrawl mustaches and boners?
Badly, and in goodness,