Pyramids of Inspiration - The Debut of Shakunaga Gaku and his Sekiso Ceramics

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(Shakunaga Gaku, Sekiso 2009)

Every now and then, young artists make their way to our doors, seeking advice on their works and their careers. Many have yet to make their debuts, and are unsure as to how to travel upon the long and winding road of aesthetics. In fact, recent years have seen the number of visitations by such artists swell tenfold, perhaps due to the increasingly dire economic conditions within the Japanese art world.

The yearly extinction of once-prominent ceramic competitions, the diminishing of influence once personified by the Nitten and Dento Kogeiten, the lack of funding at academic institutions and museums, the dwindling of sales at the prestigious department stores scattered throughout urban locales... it is not surprising to find that many young (and old) ceramists simply give up the profession in order to pursue a life of sustainability. Others desperately seek more and more venues to exhibit their works to a discerning public with actual purchasing power. The numbers are few in Japan.

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(Shakunaga's picturesque home in Iwase, Toyama Prefecture)

On the other hand, some ceramists simply stop by to casually view our exhibitions and artists. Shakunaga Gaku (釋永岳 1978-) was one such artist. Four years ago, Shakunaga, who had yet to make his debut, stopped by Yufuku to examine the Yamada Emu (currently Jozan IV) exhibition held in 2005.

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(Inside Shakunaga's home, front exhibition space)

My father, Mitsumasa "Tom" Aoyama, who happened to be in the gallery that fateful day, hit it off with Shakunaga, a built and strapping youth with large features and a humble spirit. The artist did not have any of his works with him upon his first visit, nor did he have any images of his works. Yet even with this brief encounter, my father was struck by the sublime character of this youth's soul. Often times, a work is an external expression of one's inner self. In this light, one can catch a glimpse of an artist's work by the artist's character - this is fully evident by the almost identical nature of Mihara Ken and his work. The same holds for each and every artist we consider to be a Yufuku artist.

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(Sitting in Shakunaga's home with Shojiguchi Rikie 小路口力恵, another Toyama-based artist who works in glass and who, along with Shakunaga, may very well represent the next generation of Yufuku artists)

Impressed with Shakunaga, my father would soon travel to the young artist's kiln in Toyama to learn more about the artist and his work. Shakunaga was born and raised near the soaring mountains of Toyama, his father Yukio a local potter. At the time, the artist was still experimenting with glazes and forms, and created functional works that were influenced by his father. Yet he wished to break free from the contraptions bound and set by functionality, and wanted to explore the world of abstract/conceptual ceramics that placed a premium on sculptural forms. In this sense, Shakunaga's direction and the aesthetics of Yufuku became entwined.

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(With Shakunaga's wife and child, glass artist Shojiguchi Rikie, and Tom Aoyama on a melting summer day, August 2008)

Four years and numerous trips to Toyama would pass until Shakunaga would create a ceramic style that was refreshingly original and stylistically captivating, and worth exhibiting to the public. Such works are found in his current Yufuku exhibition, and are called Sekiso (積想), or literally, "the stacking up of inspiration."

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(Work vaguely reminscent of the Oribe Jomon vases of legendary Okabe Mineo)

Each and every Shakunaga work is comprised of individual clay slabs of varying thickness that are flattened using tatara boards and stacked upon one another in layers. Each slab is torn from a larger slab of clay using his hands, which leaves a rugged texture to his surfaces. The clay used is a mixture of local Toyama clay, porcelain clay, and the Mogusa clay used in Shino ware. After an initial bisque-firing, Oribe glaze is air-brushed onto the surfaces, and the work is fired again in a gas kiln for approx. 30 hours.

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Shakunaga's technique is unique, and is the materialization of his fascination with stacking clay pieces together as if composing architecture. The artist create forms devoid of pre-conconceived ideas, but rather, tries to "find a form through stacking each piece together and instilling it with his inner emotions, his experiences, his instincts." The resulting forms are thus the embodiments of his myriad inspirations, and like the pyramids of antiquity, are structurally built up from tiny blocks of earth.

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Considering that the current Yufuku exhibition is his first body of work in his youthful career, I was thoroughly impressed with the quality of the artist's swirving yet minimalistic silhouettes. His stacking technique leaves room for great potential and evolution, and it is interesting to see what sort of forms he will discover within himself next.

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(Honoho Geijutsu, the venerable ceramics quarterly, also picked up on Shakunaga in their recent Oribe feature)

I am less impressed with his Oribe glaze - not that the quality of the glazing is bad, but Oribe has already been the muse of many, many great modern artists, for example Rosanjin, Okabe Mineo, and Koie Ryoji. Of course, the green glazing goes well with the naturalistic landscapes of his ceramics, and captures the masculine Momoyama nature of Oribe's origins. Yet why not strive for new horizons and create a signature glaze to call his own? The artist is only 31. I am sure there will be much more time for him to experiment and mature. In any case, let us enjoy his current Oribe "green" stage for what it is: an excellent debut of sculptural ceramics made by a promising young ceramist from Toyama.

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(My personal favorite - the form is very Stonehenge/portal-like. What is fascinating is not simply the overall form but the space within the form. It is the simple emptiness which is wonderful)

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(Shakunaga Gaku)

One can view the show in full at Yufuku's website here.

Please send inquiries regarding availability, prices and dimensions to the following address: info@toku-art.com

From eastern skies,

Wahei Aoyama 青山和平
Toku Art Limited
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