The figure is nothing if not startling: Truncated just above the knees and suspended on four, bark-covered sticks sprouting from the body, sculptor Katsura Funakoshi’s “The Sphinx Floats in Forest” is a muscular hermaphrodite with full, female breasts and male genitalia, an elongated neck and leather-strap “ears” draped over each shoulder — a part-animal, part-human being visiting from what might be a parallel universe.
You’ll recognize the components all right, but never have seen them assembled quite this way before. The sphinx’s face is profoundly serious, as if preoccupied with cosmic conundrums, but its well-turned thighs are filmed in saucy black stocking-tops that hint at — well, yes — intriguing tastes that certainly excite our curiosity, especially as it is not wearing anything else.
“What are we to make of this extraordinary entity?” I asked Funakoshi earlier this year while visiting his studio — fragrant with the camphor wood in which he carves almost exclusively — located in a quiet suburb of Tokyo. He described how, while starting with an idea already drawn on paper, forms and details appear under his working hands where he “felt they should be” and “where they would look right.”
On hearing this, it would seem that a search for meaning or symbolism would not be particularly rewarding, but then I realized, and certainly felt, that his images were infused with that very Japanese quality of anji — “suggestivity” — and function as catalysts to stimulate the mind and imagination of the viewer in the direction of other normally less-accessible ideas and sensations.
This uncanny quality is shared by all of Funakoshi’s sculptures and graphic works now on display until Sept. 23 at this special one-man summer show at the the Teien Museum in Meguro. Normally we look at contemporary art displays in white-walled, rectangular galleries, but here we see the installation of these amazing sculptures, drawings and prints in what was the pre-World War II palazzo of an Imperial prince. Not only do the objects just sing in the beautifully- preserved art deco interior, but — other museums pay attention please — the Teien curators have got the lighting just right. The rooms are cool and rather dark, and the artworks are sympathetically illuminated with soft light from the original 1930s electric fixtures, supplemented by new, discreet spotlighting from those clever people at Yamagiwa Denki, all carefully thought out by designer Satoshi Uchihara.
That we can marvel at the beauty of what we are looking at without being distracted by the light’s source is evidence that those behind the scenes not only have a proper respect for the objects displayed, but also know what they are doing.
Almost as well known in the West as he is in Japan, Funakoshi followed in the footsteps of his father, Yasutake Funakoshi (1912-2002), the sculptor who made the famous monument to the “26 Martyrs of Nagasaki” (completed in 1962). Raised in such an artistic milieu, Funakoshi studied sculpture in Japan and England and has in his career focused almost exclusively on interpretations of the human figure.
Until recent years, almost all of his sculptural works consist of above-the- waist, realistic figures, carved in camphor wood with painted marble eyes, and with applied pigment to indicate details and simple clothing. Each has a title that is somewhat at odds with the figure portrayed, yet also functions as a catalyst to the imagination. Funakoshi’s “Summer Shower” looks for all the world like a retiring New England professor on the weekend, with white shirt and tie under a black crew-neck pullover, respectable but relaxed, eyes alert behind silver-rimmed spectacles. One wonders what the connection is with a summer shower, especially as he appears to be dressed for fall, but then starts to imagine quietly watching one of those cool showers at the end of the season and suddenly his expression makes sense. Except, that is, for the physiognomy of his face, which along with those on many of Funakoshi’s other figures show the bone structure and eyes of Japanese — or East Asians — combined with the pale eyes and lighter hair of Caucasians, so giving yet more to think about.
Most of Funakoshi’s faces show a lack of overt expression that is almost a leitmotif of his work, yet all appear to be highly attentive, their eyes observing closely, absorbing impressions, with their heads often slightly tilted to one side, emphasizing this sense of alertness. Their profound fascination lies in inviting the viewer to imagine what they are seeing and what they are thinking.
Recent years have seen Funakoshi change direction with more enigmatic images, particularly his “Sphinx” series.
“I have always longed to be able to take the strangeness, the depths, the fascinating aspects of people of this world and reveal them in new or unique forms,” he says.
He certainly achieves this: “A Night Will Stay” shows a bald head, face theatrically madeup, with two horns, one broken, emerging from a dark, truncated phallic base — all that is left of what one pictures to be the most unfortunate surgery — covered with snail-track light-colored dribbles, altogether suggesting inescapable nightmares.
R aised as a Christian, Funakoshi is well aware of the images of the Mediterranean and Middle East, and his art training also introduced him to those of other cultures. His “Shadow on Snow” portrays two girls’ heads emerging from a shared body — a universal mythic concept seen in Neolithic Jordanian ancestor statues, pre-Columbian Inca pottery and Tahitian woodcarvings. In Funakoshi’s work, the intertwined young girls suggest an inseparable joining in their shared body, like a shadow and its cause, with a long arm in self-embrace showing a united and impenetrable strength.
One of the most ancient and powerful images to influence Funakoshi is that of the sphinx, that creature with the head and breasts of a woman, a lion’s body and bird’s wings from the mythologies of ancient Greece, Persia, Assyria and of course, Egypt. The sculptor is fascinated with what it represents and often refers to the writing of the German poet Novalis in his book “Heinrich von Ofterdingen,” where the Sphinx asks the little girl Fabel, “Who knows the world?” to which she answers, “He who knows himself.” These words have had a profound effect on Funakoshi, leading him to explore the image of the sphinx as a sort of visual metaphor plumbing deep emotions.
As with many who remember how things have gone badly wrong before, Funakoshi is troubled by the state of the world and the way it is heading. His “Sphinx Sees War” of 2005 has a face coolly observing, as if that of man’s alter-ego, while his “Sphinx Sees War II” of 2006 grimaces at a yet-worsening scene. Most disturbing of all is this year’s “Sphinx as a Watchtower,” which shows a homunculus, looking very much the sculptor like himself, emerging with raised fists from the Sphinx’s head as if in desperation with what the Sphinx has seen and knows. Funakoshi has reached the mature period of his creative life, so it will be interesting to see what will appear from under his hammer and chisel over the next few years.
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