Somewhere between art and craft lies the beauty of Satoshi Someya

by Matthew Larking

Special To The Japan Times

Satoshi Someya has produced a cerebrally engaging and visually alluring exhibition. His “Digesting Decoration” positions him among the most significant contemporary lacquer artists working today. The primary concern is with “use,” as in the particularly utilitarian function of craft, as opposed to the ostensible “uselessness” of fine art. Someya aims to subtly problematize that essentialism, while establishing himself in a gray zone between the two.

His earlier works focused on individualized fine art objects, for which he used wooden containers that acted like sculptural plinths for the lacquered works placed atop. These were often dramatically posed animal or human figures, and the surfaces were treated as 3-dimensional painting supports on which miniature designs were configured.

Earlier too, he used conventional lacquered bowls, the kind used for serving miso soup, and incorporated them into sculptural constructions that relieved the vessels of their practical usages. Furthermore, he subtitled them with first-name personal pronouns such as Taro and Hanako. Thereby individualized, the pieces seemed to warrant exemption from the designation of being a craft, as they avoided the characteristic of repetition.

Someya’s present concept of “use” is much more specific, interpreted as an expression found between an object and the human heart or our emotions. For motifs he uses found objects, such as twigs, stones and pieces of discarded polystyrene that he found aesthetically appealing.

These are paired with his lacquer creations — a lid for a rounded concrete mass, an encasement for a polystyrene ball, and vessels that encapsulate small-scale branches. The lacquer vessels that contain the natural forms also rely on them for their purpose. If the branches were to be removed, the vessels’ unique shapes could not be used to house any other form. Yet another conceptual distinction between art and craft concerns art as display and craft as decoration — Someya’s obvious emphasis here is with the former.

Other lacquer works here are hardly conventional representations of the medium. Almost none are highly polished to shiny perfection and almost no black lacquer is used. Someya now aims for a matte finish with exquisite color gradations. His lip-shaped works are based upon imagery from ukiyo-e (woodblock prints) and shunga (erotic prints), though these are also immediately suggestive of female genitalia — bite-sized pieces that, as was demonstrated by gallery staff, could be placed within the mouth. Other works concern parody or mitate-type, trompe l’oeil visual plays on Japanese sweets, such a dango (sweet dumplings) work, which has golden lacquered toothpicks inserted into it.

Elsewhere, we get partial references to Japanese traditions, such as a lacquered Mount Fuji in black, flanked by eggplants. The reference is ostensibly to the traditional belief that good luck comes to those whose first dream of the year includes the sacred mountain, a hawk and eggplants. Mount Fuji is symbolic of the highest peak and the eggplant — “nasu” or “nasubi” in Japanese —refers to a hononym meaning “to achieve greatness.” The omission of the hawk, famed for strength and cleverness, suggests understatement. Someya’s creations, may appear understated; however, are technically superb, playful, and conceptually and visually compelling.

“Satoshi Someya solo exhibition: Digesting Decoration” at imura art gallery, Kyoto runs till Dec. 21; 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Free admission. Closed Sun., Mon. and holidays. www.imuraart.com