Akio Takamori finds beauty in the ordinary. For the past two decades, he has created large scale ceramic figures of people, some from history, many from his childhood in Japan. The simple stoneware shapes are decorated with transparent underglazes reminiscent of Asian brush and ink drawings or watercolors. He presents them in groups, thoughtfully staged to convey a mood and tell a story. In these bodies of work, he reflects on the passage of time in people’s lives, in world events, and in his own art. In his current show at James Harris Gallery, “The Beginning of Everything,” all of the figures are children.
“Lately more images of children are coming into my work,” Takamori said recently. In one room, figures of two young boys, slightly less than life-size, squat close to the ground, surveying a small mountain range. Each mountain references a historic genre or work of art, their painterly glazes imitating the styles of those works: El Greco’s “View of Toledo”; Albrecht Dürer’s etching of a European hill town; Sesshū Tōyō’s Japanese mountain landscape. Takamori extrapolates the painted images into three dimension; their miniature buildings and fluffy clouds seem more whimsical in clay. The two boys are colossi surveying the history of art.
Takamori envisions this first room as the past; the next is the future, full of images of infants. If the mountains and squatting boys are grounded, these babies are otherworldly. In past works, Takamori has referred to the Japanese belief in infancy as a sort of divine state, both innocent and wise. Two life-size stoneware infants, “Putti” and “Putti in Yellow Mitts” are mounted high on the walls, as if descending from heaven. Several etchings are of babies floating in sky or water. Two brush and ink drawings on antique ledger paper superimpose images of infants over decades-old handwriting, juxtaposing past and present, childhood and adulthood. The lines of writing echo the ripples of water in the etchings.
“It seems to me a horrible time for children,” Takamori says, citing child suicide bombers and refugees, innocents caught in the downward spiral of world events. Images of children played an important role in the Social Realist art of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Three pieces were inspired by photographs from this period, taken in post-war Japan and Korea, of older children carrying younger ones on their backs, in ruined cities and empty fields. But while these poignant images speak of a loss of innocence, they are not about loss of hope. Takamori recalls being carried in this manner as a child, as a gesture of comfort and caring.
“I was looking for some sense of care and love, not looking for a sense of tragedy,” he says of the children in this last group. Their clothes are brightly colored and patterned, conveying a sense of vibrancy and optimism in spite of their serious expressions. Adults commit atrocities; children begin the world anew. But this should not be taken as a simple triumph of youth. Takamori’s children are squatting or carrying others piggyback, postures he has consciously chosen because they are typically Asian. He uses them to illustrate the beauty and decency of the ordinary, the goodness in the everyday.
The Beginning of Everything at James Harris Gallery through June 27. Information at http://jamesharrisgallery.com/news or (206) 903-6220