Lacquered Sculptures Shine, Stun at Morikami

It’s one thing to gaze at a photograph of Aoki Chie’s “Body 09-1—Impact,” which I’ve been doing for months for preview stories about the Morikami’s latest exhibition, and quite another to see the thing in front of you. First of all, it’s massive: The stills make it look like a foyer centerpiece, when it’s the size of a coffee table. It’s also impossible to capture the luster of its lacquered finish, and the air of a sacred object such a material suggests.

And lastly, but certainly not least, is the awesome philosophical subtext of this complex and herculean sculpture, in which two sets of human legs converge into a muddled middle, wrestling themselves into an anonymous mass. Aoki depicts conflict roiling into negation, two sides butting heads until neither survives. It’s the ghastly nature of war, immortalized in a semiabstract monument.

“Body 09-1—Impact” is one standout among many in “Hard Bodies: Contemporary Japanese Lacquer Sculpture,” a touring exhibition that ranks among the Morikami’s most modernist exhibits. Organized by Minneapolis Institute of Art curators who believed there wasn’t enough exposure or scholarship for contemporary lacquerware artists, “Hard Bodies” fills these gaps, discovering 16 artists who explore lacquer art in novel ways. The vast majority of the works come from the 2000s, suggested a largely untapped vanguard.

Creating lacquer art requires, as much of the wall text conveys, a surplus of patience. Lacquer, which is most commonly associated with ornamental bowls and boxes, is a polymer distilled from the sap of the rhus verniciflua, aka the lacquer tree. As an artistic material, it’s unusually precious; a single tree produces only a half cup of lacquer per year. And lacquer artists who apply it to their sculptures often spend six months to a year on a single work—such is the delicacy and duration of the finishing process. Each piece is a resplendent labor of love.

“Elements II”

Part of the time-intensive nature of these works is that with few exceptions, they’re all showstoppers whose artists live by the principle of “go big, or go home.” Matsushima Sakurako’s work, such as the tri-layered, serpentine wall squiggles of “Elements II,” looks like oversized jewelry, because that’s what it is: body ornamentation for stylish giants.

Kofushiwaki Tsukasa’s explanatorily titled “A Leaf, so it Has Front and Back,” is a massive, masterfully designed leaf rising from a boulder—a tribute to life sprouting majestically from stone. His “Fallen Moon 1” is similarly impressive—a scraggly, two-sided abstract vessel as large as a kayak. Tanaka Nobuyaki’s “Inner Side—Outer Side” is one of the exhibition’s most arresting sculptures, a monolithic, undulating shroud of pitch-blackness whose color derived from seven coats of lacquer. I never knew such an ominous void could be so mesmerizing.

“Dual Sun II”

It’s not the only sculpture that seems to be in motion. Korimono Natsuki’s “Dual Sun II” features abstract circles hypnotically painted onto a repurposed automobile hood, whose signature shape provides the illusion of movement. Muramoto Shingo’s “Wing of Foliage” is a study of a single piece of flora, but has a lilting, batlike quality, like it would float away if it weren’t housed under glass.

“Wing of Foliage”

Titles like these, and Sano Akira’s satirical “Bear—Glittering,” suggest that for many of these artists, their sculptures are exercises in representation. They are inherent testaments to the discipline and the rigor of countless hours of shaping, slathering and shining raw material into familiar forms, thereby granting permanence to the transience of life.

“Body 07-2”

Back to Aoki Chie, her other masterpiece in “Hard Bodies,” “Body 07-2,” seems like a sculptural freeze-frame of this collision point between the physical and the corporeal: It’s a human figure, suspended from the ceiling and dangling just off the ground, morphing into a pole of light, becoming an ascendant spirit. Like so much of “Hard Bodies,” it’s simply awesome.

“Hard Bodies” runs through March 31, 2019 at Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens, 4000 Morikami Park Road, Delray Beach. Museum admission costs $9-$15. For information, call 561/495-0233 or visit morikami.org.