Critical Fieldwork 38

Flowers of Japan: Katsuyuki Shirako: “exhibition 4” @ eN arts

untitled (2009), from the “scribble” series.
All images: © Katsuyuki Shirako, courtesy eN arts, Kyoto.

In every genre, the postwar Japanese craft movement has experienced the misfortune of splitting into traditional crafts and contemporary crafts (modern crafts) as a result of it having been baptized in varying degrees by modernism. Modernism mandates that a medium (lacquer art, for example) be reduced to its pure identity (the essence that makes lacquer lacquer). Because this purism regarded historically prescribed uses and traditional forms as impure, many contemporary crafts moved in the direction of the “free” creation of “objects,” although in most cases they either superficially imitated contemporary art objects or lapsed into rigidly uniform expression that invoked popular images of “freedom” (from indeterminate forms to wave or wind forms), leading to little more than the mass production of the craft version of contemporary art. Meanwhile, those artists with critical awareness who concluded that such “objects” were nothing more than the subjective self-expression of the maker and, therefore, that the reduction of craft to a pure state was an impossibility, found inspiration in the anonymous expression of nameless artisans of antiquity and chose the path of searching for the identity of their craft in the repetition of historical traditions, ultimately leading to the mass production of the contemporary version of antiques.

As one of only a handful of artists unaffected by this split into traditional crafts and modern crafts, Katsuyuki Shirako (born 1984) belongs to the new generation of 21st-century lacquer artists, and since his debut in 2008 he has unveiled a number of series of pieces both in Japan and overseas. These include the “scribble” series, in which forms picked out from among hundreds of lines drawn freehand like automatic writing are cut out of the base material (MDF) and the minimum necessary color lacquer parts added. When the two-dimensional lines drawn on paper are picked out from the material as three-dimensional forms, and beautifully lustrous lacquer parts added, instead of turning completely into solid objects the cut-out forms regain some of their original linearity. Looking at the lacquer-only “scribble” pieces, one realizes that the lacquer parts stand for linearity.

untitled (2013), from the “scribble” series.

untitled (2011), from the “scribble” series.
The shadow cast on the wall recalls the original line drawing.

The “assemble” series, which involves applying white and colored lacquer with subtly different tones and lusters over wooden objects made by delicately assembling fine parts, is an extraordinarily self-contained collection of works. At times the pieces call to mind lotus petals or the ritual implements of esoteric Buddhism, and an atmosphere of tension runs through the tall, thin work that resembles a razor.

Left: untitled (2010), right: untitled (2012), both: from the “assemble” series.

untitled (2011), from the “assemble” series.

In “scatter,” the rigorous completeness of “assemble” is undone and the delicate parts are scattered on the walls and on the floor, like flower petals or jigsaw puzzle pieces scattered on the waves. The surface of the works is finished with white pigment alone, with no lacquer added.

Both: untitled (2010), from the “scatter” series.

This exhibition, Shirako’s fourth solo outing, consists mainly of photographic works building on the “connect” series in which parts of plants have been inserted in purpose-made lacquer sheaths and photographed. The “connect” series explored the beautiful contrast between two time scales by combining the ephemerality of flowers and the permanence of lacquer. Among the works in this exhibition, too, there are some in which the lacquer objects play the role of minimalist vases, emphasizing the freshness of the flowers.

untitled (2008), from the “connect” series, in which a feather takes the place of a plant.

untitled (2009), from the “connect” series, featuring a cherry tomato.

Both: untitled (2013), from the “connect” series.

However, the new works, which do not use lacquer but combine petals with unlacquered wood or wood finished with white pigment, can only be described as expressions of a totally different concept. For a start, these are not photographs of “works that combine unlacquered wood and petals.” This is because both the unlacquered wood and petals are created/selected for the purposes of producing a single image, and once photographed they have fulfilled their role. As well, in the sense that the image size (not actual size, but with the subjects enlarged slightly) is fixed and there is no enlargement or reduction, they are not photographic works as such but rather images rendered three-dimensional. Next, the unlacquered wood objects are not vessels designed to hold flowers, because, in terms of order, the unfinished wood objects are made first and then flowers chosen to match the objects. Perhaps the meaning of these works will be clearer if we look at the new works from the “scribble” series that appear at the end of the photographic display. A work combining unlacquered black wood and lustrous black lacquer is paired with a work combining unlacquered white wood and white prairie gentian petals, revealing that in Shirako’s art practice “lacquer” and “flowers” occupy the same position. Based on the three-dimensionality of the images as well as the precedence given to unlacquered wood and the addition to this of flowers = lacquer, we can conclude that the new “connect” series serves as a model for Katsuyuki Shirako’s lacquer art. Viewed as a whole, these works indicate the sense in which his lacquer art is “unaffected by the split into traditional crafts and modern crafts.”

All: untitled (2013), from the “connect” series.

untitled (2013), from the “scribble” series.

As most readers will be aware, traditional lacquer art has employed a system in which specialists are responsible for different processes in its production. The kijishi, or woodturner, first makes the base out of wood, and then the nushi, or lacquerer, does the surface preparation and applies the lacquer. This division of labor is such that the latter covers up the work of the former, but the finished artwork consists of a marriage of the form of the vessel, which derives from the kijishi, and the texture of the surface, which derives from the nushi. To put it another way, as well as rendering the base material invisible, the process of applying the lacquer elevates it into a more complete form. In modern lacquer art a single artist serves as both kijishi and nushi, but to the extent that the hierarchical relationship between base material and lacquer (underlayer + top layer) and the marriage of form and texture underlie the production process, it is the same.

This relationship that lies at the heart of both traditional lacquer art and modern lacquer art is not adhered to by Shirako. The base material and lacquer do not lie one on top of the other but adjoin each other. The lacquer does not coat the wood but is added to it. Accordingly, form and texture are not unified but remain in a kind of collaged state in which the (form and texture of the) wooden base and the (form and texture of the) lacquer intricately “connect.” So, what role does the lacquer play in this new connection? In other words, what state should Shirako’s original lacquer, freed from the restrictions of conventional lacquer art, assume?

Because Katsuyuki Shirako’s lacquer art as it is currently developing is nothing less than the never-ending pursuit of answers to these questions, it would be impossible to come up with clear answers here, but I would nevertheless like to offer some clues.

1. As already mentioned, the forms of the unlacquered wooden pieces take as their starting point two-dimensional lines and patterns, and are made by cutting these out as is from the base material. It is particularly noticeable in “scribble,” but the lacquer takes on the function of pushing back these three-dimensionalized forms ever so slightly into two-dimensionality. In a sense, the lacquer is added to take away from the three-dimensional forms a small amount of their three-dimensionality.

2. Shirako by no means emphasizes the lacquer. The lacquer is added extremely modestly, and the fully lacquered “scribble” pieces are extremely small in size. The strong sense of completeness of the “assemble” pieces probably derives from the fact that the unlacquered wood and lacquer are perfectly equally matched.

From this it is clear that here we have a young artist who is at the stage of slowly reaching out his hands to explore a new “connection” between unlacquered wood and lacquer and to search for a new take on lacquer’s luster. Flowers in the form of lacquer are blooming in an unknown land (terra incognita). Shirako’s new works superpose the permanence of lacquer = death and fresh petals = life, suspending time at the very moment when lacquer = flowers come into contact with the unlacquered wood when pierced at a single point. Perhaps the lacquer represents the luster of life that maintains a delicate balance with death. And perhaps this is the source of the poignant eroticism that one occasionally senses in these works. It is the eroticism of a clear crystal substance that lacks body heat.

Katsuyuki Shirako: “exhibition 4” was held from August 2 through 31, 2013 at eN arts, Kyoto.

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