BY SUSAN KUNIMATSU
A slight man of modest demeanor, Akio Takamori casts a long shadow in the field of ceramics. A native of Japan and longtime Seattle resident, he is an internationally-acclaimed artist in his creative prime. This summer, two Northwest museums offer complementary views of his work. “Between Clouds of Memory: The Ceramic Art of Akio Takamori” at the Tacoma Art Museum is a mid-career survey of a body of work that is both mature and still evolving. The Henry Art Gallery’s “Akio Takamori: The Laughing Monks,” offers his personal vision of selected works from the Henry’s collection.
“Between Clouds of Memory” originated at the Arizona State University Art Museum’s Ceramic Research Center, one of the nation’s top collections of contemporary ceramics. Rock Hushka, Tacoma Art Museum’s curator of contemporary and Northwest art, felt it was important to bring Takamori’s work home.
“Akio is at the top echelon of ceramists in the U.S. and worldwide,” says Hushka. “The only embarrassment is why hasn’t this happened sooner?”
Although clay is his medium, Takamori is a sculptor, not a potter. His works are large, exuberant and colorful. Though fraught with literary, historical, and personal references, they are also full of wit, by turns playful, sensuous and reflective.
“Every one is an amazing object to look at. Each object tells a story and people understand them very easily,” Hushka maintains.
Takamori’s career can be viewed in phases; in each, he explored a particular form in depth. This exhibit groups works from each phase so that their evolution is clear.
One group comprises about a dozen of his seminal envelope vessels. Built from flat slabs of clay, each is a self-contained scene. Standing alone near the center of the room is Takamori’s first major sculptural work, “Village,” a remarkably detailed recollection of his home town of Nobeoka, done while he was an undergraduate at the Kansas City Art Institute. “Village” came back into Takamori’s possession in 1996.
The memories it evoked sparked the development of his most recent work: large, almost life-size figures of people from history and from his childhood that Takamori produces in series of as many as 30 on a common theme.
When exhibited, they are carefully arranged in groups, silently speaking to each other. He regards these installations as completed works, rather than the individual figures. This retrospective includes only one or two figures from each series, so the viewer must rely on the exhibit catalog for photographs of the fully realized installations.
Work is displayed on white, cloud-shaped platforms, referring to the show’s title and the dream-like quality of memory. The platforms vary in height; many pieces are below eye level so viewers can look into vessels and down on sleeping figures. Only “Village” is under glass. The large scale of the pieces and the ability to stand almost over them allow a rare intimacy with the work.
Leading up to its 80th anniversary, the Henry Gallery is exploring its own collection with the help of guest curators. For “The Laughing Monks,” Takamori had added a second lens to his curator’s viewpoint, asking visitors to imagine selected works of art through the eyes of Kanzan and Jittoku, two monks from Zen Buddhist folklore who embody the naïve wisdom of children and the elderly. Takamori has created two pairs of monk figures for this exhibit, which occupies two small rooms on either side of a hallway in the museum’s North Galleries.
One gallery has white walls and a white platform that nearly fills the room. Takamori’s jolly monks face each other from opposite ends of the platform, across an array of 20 ceramic bottles ranging in provenance from 16th century China to mid-20th century Japan and the United States. The facing gallery has daffodil yellow walls lined with images of children, all prints or photographs, from a 19th century Japanese wood cut to a 2003 Helen Levitt (American) photograph. These are edgy views of youth: children with serious expressions, in military costumes or nude, in slum neighborhoods and dark rooms. Kanzan and Jittoku stand on stepped platforms at opposite ends of the room, their backs to each other, contemplating the works of art.
“The Laughing Monks” offers the viewer many dualities to ponder: the symmetry and contrast of the gallery layout and colors; the counterpoint of new and old in the artworks; the innocent and scary aspects of childhood; the vulnerability and divinity that Asian cultures ascribe to children and the aged, as personified by Kanzan and Jittoku. A small number of works becomes a feast for thought, if we let the laughing monks take us outside the museum box.
“Between Clouds of Memory: The Ceramic Art of Akio Takamori,” through Oct. 8 at the Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma. 253) 272-4258. www.TacomaArtMuseum.org.
“Akio Takamori: The Laughing Monks,” through Oct. 29 at the Henry Art Gallery, 15th Ave. N.E. and N.E. 41st St., Seattle. (206) 543-2280. www.HenryArt.org.