KATSURA FUNAKOSHI

Going out on a limb

by C.B. Liddell

When Katsura Funakoshi started working in wood more than 30 years ago, it was a highly unfashionable artistic material. It didn’t have the mercurial properties of paint or video, nor the modern gleam and sheen of steel or other manmade materials.

By working in wood at that time, artists were almost saying that they belonged to, or wished to belong to, an earlier, gentler, more conservative era, where things changed slowly and art was a craft. In a sense, it was an identification with the slow and gradual way that wood grows and ages — one ring at a time.

But Funakoshi’s latest work, “The Sphinx Floats in Forest” — now on display with five other recent works at the Nishimura Gallery in Nihonbashi — is a radical departure from his past. It almost seems as if the slowly changing tree of his art has been struck by lightning, creating sharp breaks and shocking new shapes and textures.

Compared with his sculpture from 2002, “The Sphinx” shows several new elements, not least of which is that the entire sculpture is suspended in midair by four long, curved branches that stretch down to the ground like the legs of a UFO. In addition, the figure is not only nude — something extremely rare in his work before 2003 — but is in fact a hermaphrodite with breasts, a penis, kinky stockings and dangling “animal ears” made from long strips of leather.

Funakoshi, himself, seems a changed man as well.

“I can say I feel much freer than when I was young,” the 55-year-old artist tells The Japan Times as the sculpture is delicately lowered into place.

When I spoke to him four years ago, he had emphasized the gradual nature in which his inspiration flowed. “I don’t want to change suddenly,” he said at the time. “I always have to wait for my thoughts or ideas to mature. When I get an idea, I think about it, and sometimes it stays with me for seven or eight years before I realize how to use it.”

So what has happened to accelerate his creative cycle so noticeably?

“I saw many things that have started to influence me,” he says. “When I went to the ruins of Angkor Wat a few years ago, I saw a snake with seven heads and a four-faced Buddha. Also, sometimes I think of noh. It’s very old but it’s very free. For example, the masks are so strange. The mouth is over on one side and the hat sits on the head behind the face. Things like that are liberating for an artist.”

Another influence has been Takeshi Yoro, professor of anatomy at the University of Tokyo and the author of “Baka no Kabe (The Wall of a Fool).”

“I met him and he told me that the person who cannot gamble is no good,” Funakoshi recalls. “Breaking my artistic wall is a kind of gamble, but I have to do it.”

With its mixture of genders, long, flaccid leather ears, truncated legs and the rough, unworked branches that seem to impale the figure, “The Sphinx” is certainly a gamble. It will doubtlessly strike many people as ugly and grotesque, and it is certainly in stark contrast to his early works — realistic, sensitively rendered figurative sculptures in colored camphor wood, where the attention was on the faces and their glistening marble eyes.

These works somehow seemed beautifully aged from the moment he finished them. Having arrived at such a successful and winning formula early in his career, it seems strange that he is now building a bonfire of this earlier style and branching out on a radical new quest. Isn’t the problem the pressure that successful artists face to constantly change, even when novelty may lead to an aesthetic regression?

“There is a pressure,” he says. “It comes from this gallery and from my friends but, essentially, it’s from my mind. I think an artist’s art must change because I am living. I remember when I first exhibited my wood sculptures at university, one of my classmates said ‘Hey, Funakoshi, what’s this? The eyes are grotesque.’ But I didn’t feel fear because I had confidence in what I had done. The first piece of something new — even if it has imperfections — is the best one. This is how I felt with ‘The Sphinx.’ “

In the same way that Funakoshi’s classmate took exception to one of his earliest works, many people will take exception to “The Sphinx.” But Funakoshi’s newfound confidence and his accelerated rate of inspiration suggest there is plenty of artistic sap flowing through his branches.