The nature of Japanese lacquer art

by Matthew Larking

Special To The Japan Times

Katsuyuki Shirako (b. 1984) is a lacquer artist, though not one who accords specific primacy to that medium. His fourth show at Kyoto’s eN arts in Kyoto, is predominantly photographs. Drawn from the artist’s “Connect” series, these images show a combination of his carefully crafted lacquer forms with natural plants, leaves and flowers, such as irises and lilies.

One 2013 work for example, has a green plant stem of an Amazon Lily that branches out, and in the “V” shape in between the stems, Shirako integrates a little lacquer sculpture. In other works, we find blades of grass and lacquer pieces organized into an almost geometrical abstraction, and coiled flowers or leaves about to spring forth from curvy organic forms that enclose them.

These arrangements by the artist were snapped by a professional photographer, and these are what hang on the gallery walls.

While Shirako has said that his works do not “possess any specific meaning,” the lacquered forms that live on indefinitely as the natural materials decay evoke the dialogue between the Japanese aesthetic conventions of permanence and transience, natural and man made. Photography is deemed the medium best to capture these contrived encounters, and so the images become permanent indexes of the temporal cohabitation of nature with a human element integrated within.

Less colorful combinations of nature and lacquer sculpture are found in Shirako’s white-on-black images of Eustoma flowers and the white-on-white works of roses and shell powder, both of which reduce the palette to near monochrome abstraction.

The three petite lacquer sculptures in the exhibition are culled from Shirako’s “Scribbles” series. For this, the artist singles out particular sketches from his notebooks, enlarges them on a copy machine and transfers the design to wood that he then hand carves and finishes with approximately 20 layers of lacquer. Works are typically made with Japanese lime wood or medium-density fiber-board as the base material.

These works are linearly focused and even appear somewhat tribal in character, though Shirako places emphasis on the influence of polysemy in their making. Polysemous interpretation is also an expectation in the viewer’s reception of such work. Another 2013 sculpture conjures thoughts of tangled roots, thorns and buffalo horns, though no real definitive reduction to interpretative essentials is possible. The other two spindly sculptures are displayed in the basement room in near pitch-black conditions. With only the most subtle and diffuse spotlighting to illuminate them, they suggest an intentional obfuscation of visual and interpretative clarity. As in the traditional application of lacquer, the technical process of adding such multiple layers is also resonant with Shirako’s conceptual concerns.

“Katsuyuki Shirako solo exhibition: Exhibition 4:” at eN arts runs till Aug. 31; Fri., Sat. and Sun. open 12 p.m.-6 p.m., weekdays by appointment only. Free admission. www.en-arts.com