Eighty-year-old artist Ushio Shinohara moved to New York in the late 1960s after making waves in the Japanese avant-garde for Neo-Dadaist paintings and sculptures with an eye toward American iconography. His “junk art” tends to go down two different tracks: found-object sculptures composed of discarded cardboard boxes and assorted parts, trash, and globs of paint, and “action paintings” in which Shinohara slathers paint on boxing gloves and unleashes a flurry of punches across a large canvas for about two and a half minutes. The idea behind the latter is that it’s a visceral, unconscious act of emotion, documented across a kaleidoscopic frame. At one point in Cutie And The Boxer, a fascinating documentary about long-married artists, Shinohara’s dealer contrasts his splatter with Jackson Pollock’s, claiming Pollock’s paintings were less spontaneous—and by implication, more contrived. (As with Pollock, Shinohara’s art will no doubt read to some as a “my kid could paint that” proposition.)
Director Zachary Heinzerling, who filmed Cutie And The Boxer over five years, doesn’t exactly come to conclusions about Shinohara’s work one way or the other, but does strongly imply that the artist’s long-suffering wife, Noriko, hasn’t gotten the respect she deserves. In 1972, when she was a starstruck 19-year-old art student, Noriko fell in love with Ushio, who was slightly more than twice her age. Within six months of their meeting, Noriko was pregnant with their first and only child, Alex, and that was that. From that point on, Noriko had to set aside her own ambitions to take care of two needy children: Ushio, a raging alcoholic who never had two dimes to rub together, and a young boy growing up in a not particularly wholesome environment. She had attached herself to an anchor that looked to her eyes like a shooting star.
Forty years later, Heinzerling shows scenes from Ushio and Noriko’s marriage, and the dynamic hasn’t changed, apart from Ushio finally getting sober. Noriko acts as his assistant and de facto manager, cooks nearly every meal for him, and harbors a simmering resentment that spills over into a series of semi-autobiographical drawings and paintings about “Cutie” (her) and “Bullie” (him). At this point—and probably in the past, too, given how much Ushio seems within his own head—he seems willing to absorb a little blowback, even in the form of publicly exhibited depictions of him as a broke, boozing, pitifully dependent man-child. He loves her and needs her, and she loves him and… well… she could probably manage on her own, actually.
Interspersed with home-movie footage from an earlier, wilder time in the couple’s life, Cutie And The Boxer gleans a great deal from Ushio and Noriko’s domestic rituals, which often channel the difficulties of their marriage without their awareness. Noriko carefully plates a home-cooked masterpiece at dinner, only to have Ushio ransack it like one of his canvases. Noriko and Ushio’s grown son works through wine like water, picking up his father’s old vice. Noriko arranges her husband’s bag as if it were a grade-schooler’s backpack. Heinzerling also gets a strong sense of how the Shinoharas have to scramble to please gallery owners and buyers in order to make the rent. When a rep from the Guggenheim sweeps through Ushio’s studio, looking for a painting with “history,” their solvency is on the line.
At a certain point, though, Heinzerling backs off a little, and the film suffers for it. While evident love and affection continues to sustain this marriage, the film softens conspicuously in the third act, leaving the Shinoharas as more a frisky old married couple than partners dealing with ever-refreshing tensions. Yet the overall impression of artists asserting themselves at home and in their work is rendered with complexity and style, aided by an avant-jazz Yasuaki Shimizu score that knocks the film off a more conventional axis. Cutie And The Boxer chronicles a marriage that’s extraordinary in many ways, and ordinary in one—it’s a constant work in progress.