New Forms from an Ancient Craft: Exploring Hard Bodies

By Susan Arndt, Mia docent

Mount Bull, 2013 Someya Satoshi Lacquer, wood, rattan, horn, metal, mother of pearl, shell, leather, and pigment Gift of the Clark Center for Japanese Art & Culture 2013.29.1313a
Mount Bull, 2013
Someya Satoshi
Lacquer, wood, rattan, horn, metal, mother of pearl, shell, leather, and pigment
Gift of the Clark Center for Japanese Art & Culture 2013.29.1313a

Nothing about the creation of a piece of lacquerware is easy. To start,  the viscous, slow-running sap is toxic and is collected from a tree that is a close relative of poison ivy. Contact dermatitis is a real possibility. The sap must be distilled carefully to remove impurities and improve its quality. Warmth and humidity are required in order for it to cure and set properly. By mixing lacquer with ground clay, artists are able to mold layers around a core, adding hemp cloth, coating and drying after each addition. Then one builds, dries, polishes, and repeats.
Inlays are created by gluing precious materials such as mother-of-pearl to an object. This is coated with more lacquer, dried, polished, and coated again and again. Painting adds another layer. The process of building up layers of lacquer requires time and could take months or years to complete an object. But the finished product’s durable surface is distinct, like liquid velvet.
Production of a single piece of lacquer is definitely not easy and this is why walking through the exhibition Hard Bodies: Contemporary Japanese Lacquer Sculpture is visually stunning. A jaw-dropping joy in my book. The “audacious eye “of Willard (Bill) Clark led Clark and his wife Elizabeth to explore and collect lacquer objects by contemporary artists who are in turn exploring the ancient utilitarian craft to push it in new sculptural directions. The Clark collection’s strength in the new form is unique 30 works by 16 artists, are included in the exhibition — and affords viewers a wonderful opportunity to witness a moment when art examines itself and pivots to take us somewhere we have never been before.
And so, I find it very appropriate that the biographical Mount Bull by Someya Satoshi was commissioned by Clark in 2013 at a time when the Clarks were making plans to move their collection to Mia from Hanford, California. Influenced by animation, Someya’s work combines pop culture with the ancient aesthetics of lacquer craft.  The tattoo-like motifs that cover the figure of a bull reference both Japanese and California culture. Why a bull? There are many works of art in the Clark collection that have the bull as subject matter. Mr. Clark built his family farm into a worldwide cattle breeding business. The success of the business-on the back of the bull-allowed the Clarks to appreciate, collect, and share their love of Japanese art.
Both Mount Fuji and Mount Whitney, highest peaks in Japan and California respectively, are represented on the bull. Both mountains are considered sacred to the indigenous peoples of Japan and California. They are sources of artistic inspiration. Other motifs represent the culture and landscape of both places. A Route 66 sign is synonymous with the great American road trip that explores the vast landscape of the country. It brushes up against Japanese pine trees. It was, after all, a photo of a Japanese garden in a geography book that peaked the interest of a 12-year old Clark, igniting his lifelong passion for this art. Indeed, turning a passion into an opportunity for cultural sharing and study is extraordinary.