The great ceramicist Akio Takamori is also a great lover of photographs. One of his favorites is the dusky 1893 portrait taken by the French photographer Nadar of his floppy-haired son and two Japanese samurai visiting Paris.
Armed and dressed in their formal robes, the straight-backed samurai stare down the camera while the delicate little boy stands between them, slumping in his baggy pants and gazing off dreamily. The contrast between the boy and the samurai is almost dramatic enough to constitute cognitive dissonance. Another kind of animal encountering this photo would have legitimate cause to wonder how Homo sapiens could possibly be a single species.
"I always really admired Nadar's way of looking at things," Takamori told the audience at a 2014 lecture he gave at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. "He just captures, as it is."
As it is: Takamori and his wife are having an ordinary day in Seattle until they pass by a window or mirror. He catches a glimpse of their reflection, and he's shocked, still, after 31 years of marriage. He's shocked because he looks so Japanese, and she looks so Anglo. They share everything, yet they look like aliens to each other. Takamori knows this is what other people see.
"I kind of live with an inferior[ity] complex toward the Western civilization, you know what I mean?" Takamori told me. "Especially the physicality. You go to the Metropolitan Museum to see the Greek and Roman sculptures, and Apollo's ass is beautiful! It's undeniable, isn't it?"
But if Apollo's ass is beautiful, is Takamori's ass ugly? (Does my ass look non-Western in this?) And as an artist who makes asses himself—Takamori sculpts human figures—how should they look given the Greco-Roman Western standard he grew up seeing in art books?
Well, Takamori's people are deliberately awkward. They're fragile, made in dry, scratchy, plaster-like bisqueware, not smooth, cold marble. He sculpts the forms, fires them, then paints and refires repeated layers of drippy, diluted underglaze, which end up looking like watercolor paint. On faces, Takamori makes it look as though the color rises up blotchily, as if the figures are actually blushing. His thick painted lines articulate shapes: the folds in a turned neck, the curves on each side of a nose. The bodies are often standing, but sometimes they're lying on their backs or sides, or squatting provocatively with legs spread.
Takamori's people force a reckoning with scale. They're often described as slightly less than life-size, but whose life-size? Once Takamori sculpted General Douglas MacArthur standing next to Emperor Hirohito, from an actual 1945 photograph. In the photo, Hirohito comes up to MacArthur's ear. In Takamori's sculptures, Hirohito is only as tall as MacArthur's armpit. The difference is exaggerated.
"Embrace your differences!" is a cheer heard in the name of multiculturalism. But in Takamori's art and life, signs of cultural difference are uneasy because they connote real differences. Difference is a stubborn kernel that will not resolve. It's that one thing you don't talk about.
Embracing difference isn't the same as facing it, anyway.
Takamori's figures face you, and you face them. Sometimes the women and girls wear their hair in buns that stick out in hard, rude, suggestive protuberances that breach the space between you and them. In a new series of bodies on display at James Harris Gallery, the protuberances jutting off the people are actually other people. There are four pairs of piggybackers, each sculpted as one form. They might be siblings, or a parent with a child, and rather than contrasting each other in appearance, there are strong family resemblances between them. They give off a feeling of reassurance, a bond.
There also are, for the first time in Takamori's life, pure landscapes. Five sculptures of mountains are arrayed in a row along a 20-foot stretch of pedestal that stands 44 inches high. (I wondered how tall Takamori is by comparison, and when I e-mailed to ask, he answered, "I am 5'4" and look how I can make bigger people look short." He'd attached a photo of his public sculptures: three oversize female Asian figures, miniaturizing the actual Whole Foods shoppers walking by them in South Lake Union.)
The five mountains inside the gallery newly embody Takamori's double consciousness. Three of them are based on Japanese artist Sesshu's 15th-century landscape paintings, in which mountains rising up through fog and clouds eclipse any faint signs of human interference. Sesshu's paintings are built like white and ink layer cakes.
The other two landscapes, dating from both ends of Sesshu's century, are based on paintings by Albrecht Dürer (View of Arco) and El Greco (View of Toledo). In these, the forms recede rather than stacking up. If you were to take a walk inside these paintings, you'd naturally feel like going from one side to another in the Eastern ones, whereas in the Western scenes, you'd walk straight ahead up into the distance.
In sculptural form, Takamori builds the Sesshu mountains into fat walls with craggy bulges. Their floating clouds are the cousins of those old, familiar rude protuberances on Takamori's figures, awkward, sexual, and slightly vegetal. Meanwhile, the westernized sculptures twist up to thin points dotted with wartlike rock outcroppings and pinkie-thick castle towers. Do I prefer the Western mountains with their dollhouse features and priapic thrust because I'm Western and something deep in me loves Apollo's ass? Very possibly.
The Beginning of Everything is the title of Takamori's new show, and in the middle of it are sculptures of babies—he has been making babies as dual symbols of innocence and age for several years now. He is 65 years old. Past work has addressed the subject of his father aging. (His doctor father—and this makes perfect sense considering the frank, polymorphous perversity of Takamori's work—ran a venereal-disease clinic, hung Japanese prints on the walls at home, and stocked the bookshelves with volumes on Western art.)
At James Harris there are two ceramic sculptures of baby boys nude on their backs. Their arms are splayed in that careless baby way, and their eyes can't focus. Nothing on this earth is their concern, or even in view. Takamori also hung them very high on the wall, higher than any General MacArthur, removed from the human realm. Maybe in this other, heavenly place, Takamori would never have to feel the conflict of difference, the conflict between being a successful artist and an alien reflection in a mirror, someone who looks, even to himself, merely short and odd. Maybe. We can look up and imagine. But we live down here.