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The elemental sculptures of Akiyama Yo.

Akiyama Yo is known for his abstract black sculptures with a distinctive crackled surface. One could say that the majority of the work in his survey exhibition at Musee Tomo--a group of smooth-surfaced vessel works date as far back as 1976, but most works are recent--held to that pattern, but that description would not do the show justice. The modest dimensions and permanent display features of the gallery spaces beautifully accommodated Akiyama's pieces both large and small, and the lighting design of these windowless rooms perfectly suited the sober, silent aura of his 39 works. The result was an exhibition that balanced drama against meditative quiet and powerful forms against subtle details. The texture and mass express the materiality of the clay.

Akiyama's work is carbon-impregnated earth-enware; his titles may risk sounding like jargon but also imply geology and time. The exhibition was titled "Towards the Sea of Arche," which, a label explained, means a yearning for the primordial. In an artist's statement he suggests that this yearning was not innate but arose from the process of working with this material.

The earliest of his characteristic works is Peneplain 862 (1986, earthenware and steel), a narrow, slightly concave slab just over 2 meters tall. The surface is all large crackle with a mostly directional effect, seeming to radiate from a spot near the center of the left edge. The piece was hung in an angular niche, shadowed at the top, strikingly totemic. A floor piece from two years later is gargantuan. Peneplain 881 (1988) is 4.5 meters long, arching across a small gallery that it dominated in measurement and in impact. The crackles here run across the curve of nine perfectly matched modules in consistent direction, recalling bent bamboo. The regularity of the curve, like a half tube, is interrupted by an attachment at the back that evokes a roof. The whole form is inexplicable but somehow inevitable. Spotlighted in the low-light space it could be interpreted as ominous, or as serene, or as a manifestation of the aesthetic Junichiro Tanizaki described in his celebrated 1933 essay, In Praise of Shadows.

Examples from the 1990s are considerably more complex. Pho II (1990) is a suspended teardrop shape nearly 2 meters long. The bottom quarter is a smooth curve, bowl-like, but the remainder consists of tapering rows of crackle and smoother rings, like threads on a screw, which, in fact, the sculpture resembles. Zone II (1991) carries the association further. It's like a round-head screw resting on the side of the head and on the point of the screw. In this case, the head is crackled.

By 2000, Akiyama had added a new-and even more primordial-look to his repertoire. Geological Age 16, from that year, is small (53 cm tall) but massive, suggesting a mountain or a spill of iron ore. It is characterized by raw, lava-like surfaces and gashes with just a few smoother concave passages (on the slopes of the "mountain") that look like he has somehow turned his crackles inside out. The lower edges also include smoother concave passages, these neatly raked in fine parallel lines, although they are split by gashes resembling a sci-fi movie earthquake fault line.

Heterophony 4 (2009), a rounded mass about 1 meter high and wide, invokes a tragic pile of broken bowls in some ancient ruin. A large split bowl is recognizable at the bottom, with stacks of smaller bowls or plates inside it and a muddle of debris at the top. This has the poignancy of human artifacts destroyed and yet preserved by volcanic eruption. The overall oval shape might recall Graham Marks' sculptures, but with a harsher topography. A few dark openings hint at access to the shadowy interior.

Smaller objects from around 2005, such as Metavoid 9 or Untitled T-54 are compact forms that incorporate areas that could contain something, but they are variously crusty, crackled with large fragments or just plain torn. Still, these graspable forms, even with their pitted or striated surfaces, visually relate to eight early sculptures in a series called "Incubation," which were shown on stepped shelves at the back of one gallery. These were also black, but satiny smooth, in a variety of forms that provoke associations without actually resembling anything specific. A sort of folded triangular box, parallel reclining bollards with geometric tongues at one end, a double dog dish, a kind of flattened barbell and other imaginative and often sensuous shapes show Akiyama's intuitive gift for sculptural form.

There are a few outliers. Untitled W-092 is a seven-pointed pillow of porcelain, its pale color stained with hints of orange. The creases and puckers of this wall piece resemble aged skin. Other works are less black than rusty or earthy brown, including a group of very small models dated 2004-14 (image 37). Massed together, they seem to show Akiyama's mind at work, turning over elements, developing textures, making reserved and elegant yet powerfully direct sculptures, true of his entire career. He is certainly one of the contemporary masters of Japanese sculptural ceramics, and his forms do not rely on homegrown associations but are just as impressive in an international context.


Peneplain 881 (Museum of Modern Art, Shiga), Pho (Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art), ZONE II (21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa).

Janet Koplos was awarded a National Endowment of the Arts critic's grant in 1978 and from 1990--2009 she was a staff editor at Art in America magazine. She is the author of Contemporary Japanese Sculpture (1991) and co-author of Makers: A history of American Studio Craft. (2010, University of North Carolina Press).

Caption: Previous page: Zone II.

Caption: Above: 2004-14.

Caption: The works seem to show Akiyama's mind at work, turning over elements, developing textures.

Caption: The whole form is inexplicable but somehow inevitable.

Caption: Pho II. 1990.
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Author:Koplos, Janet
Publication:Ceramics Art & Perception
Geographic Code:9JAPA
Date:Jul 1, 2017
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