Kelly Akashi. Body Complex, 2019. Ana and Mitch Bierman • Courtesy

Seeing Formations, Kelly Akashi’s show at the Frye Art Museum, is like reading a book with the chapters out of order. But each chapter is so interesting that you want to know the whole story. The presentation is not chronological.

Objects, materials, and cultural references play off each other. The first work the viewer encounters is “Well(-)Hung” (2017/2022), a chain of disembodied bronze hands suspended by a rope from the ceiling of the museum’s foyer. Some hands hold pieces of red onion, an apt metaphor for the Akashi’s layered approach to her art. References to history, mythology, science, and Akashi’s personal story are embedded in her choice of materials, imagery, and art-making processes.

Originally trained in analog photography, Akashi retains a fascination with the transformational and time-based aspects of that process. Unlike digital photography, it is a physical process in which light creates a negative image on film; a second exposure to light and chemicals produces a positive image on paper. Timing of the light exposure is critical.

Formations surveys the past eight years of Akashi’s practice. During that time, she expanded her palette to include glass, wax, and bronze all materials with the ability to transform from fluid to solid state. These materials have been in use for centuries, placing them in a historical context. Many artworks draw on Akashi’s research in botany, paleontology, and biology, engaging with an even longer geologic timeline.

Several works are furniture-like structures containing groups of objects that riff on the Renaissance cabinet of curiosities. The oak shelves of “Body Complex” (2019) hold artifacts scattered across time, but connected to the natural sciences: seashells reproduced in glass, x-rays of shells, vintage medical illustrations, and steel castings of Akashi’s own hand.

Kelly Akashi. Life Forms (Poston Pines), 2021. Collection of Young-Abraham (Frye Art Museum installation view) • Courtesy

“Figure 1” (2014) is a group of vaguely biomorphic forms in glass, urethane, and wax on a cylindrical white pedestal that places them almost at eye level. Wax embodies Akashi’s obsession with time. When liquid, it is malleable; once cool, its shape stops changing. However, most of her wax sculptures are candles that can change shape as they burn. Candle-making is a medieval process that Akashi learned from her mother, giving it both a historical and a generational context.

One of the most imposing works in the show is “Weep” (2020/2022), a 5-foot diameter cast-bronze sphere centered in a shallow circular pool. Its dark, roughly textured surface oozes water that softly drips into the pool.

Bronze casting is an ancient process that transforms liquid into solid. Like analog photography, the subject is captured in a negative form, in a mold that is then filled with molten metal, recreating the original shape. Bronze can last for centuries. In contrast, the water is constantly moving, of this moment. Relentless, yet meditative.

A gallery titled “Inheritance” is dedicated to works of a specific time and place. Akashi’s father was from Los Angeles and during World War II, he and his family were incarcerated at the Poston Relocation Center in Arizona. A child of eight, he was deeply affected by the experience, but rarely talked about it as an adult. In 2021, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Akashi made several trips to the site of the camp.

Kelly Akashi: Formations is on view at the Frye Art Museum through September 3 • Courtesy

In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, she said,

“A lot of people’s families have hidden stories: things you know but you don’t know, and you don’t have access to them anymore. For me that journey is very personal… So I’m trying to materialize it.”

In the desolate landscape, among the few surviving buildings, Akashi found trees that had been planted by the incarcerees. She gathered fallen limbs, weeds, and stones. “Inheritance” (2021-2022) is a series of three sculptures, each composed of a glass casting of Akashi’s hand, wearing a piece or two of her grandmother’s jewelry and holding a stone from Poston.

Several works are titled “Witness” (2021-2022), tree limbs cast in bronze and photographs of the trees. Two plants growing together were cast in bronze to form “Conjoined Weeds” (2022), symbolizing the generational connection between Akashi and her father, and the resilience of weeds that grow in the desert. These and other sculptural works are displayed on low rectangular platforms surfaced with rammed earth, evoking the Poston environment.

In September, Akashi will present new work at the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington. During a conversation with Frye curator Amanda Donnan, she made tantalizing allusions to this show. Meeting with astrophysicists at the UW, and viewing their archival images of astronomical phenomena has shown her “a radically different relationship with time.”

Kelly Akashi: Formations is on view at the Frye Art Museum through September 3. Information at 206 622 9250 and An exhibition catalog published by the San Jose Museum of Art is available.    

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