Behind every tortured artist is someone who has to do the housekeeping. Zachary Heinzerling’s new documentary about 80-year-old Japanese action painter Ushio Shinohara, “Cutie and the Boxer,” centers on that very someone. In the case of Shinohara, it’s his scrappy wife Noriko, an artist in her own right who forsook her own dreams to support her unruly husband. Rather than create a biography of Shinohara as he originally intended, Heinzerling explores this codependent couple’s stormy relationship and fraught history of regret and disappointment. He lovingly paints Ushio and Noriko as two individuals overflowing with personality, at once enmeshed in the New York art scene and also holed up in their Brooklyn loft, toiling to make ends meet.
There are plenty of tempestuous artist couples in history — Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Ulay and Marina Abramovic — but Ushio and Noriko never achieved that kind of mutual recognition for their work. Known for his distinct style of using boxing gloves to produce expressionist murals, Ushio is well known in New York. But only now, as shown in this film, does Noriko, 59, finally experience her own artistic empowerment. Her “Cutie” series, a comic book-style collection of quirky illustrations depicting her early life and marriage to Ushio, is animated and integrated into the film and also in a final joint exhibit the couple unveils to the public.
Along the way, Heinzerling floats around the pair as a fly-on-the-wall, stripping his film of interviews and talking heads in favor of a close-up approach that resembles narrative filmmaking at its most intimate. I sat down with the Brooklyn-based Texan native to discuss this wonderful film, which won the documentary directing prize at Sundance and an audience award at Tribeca.
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