Sculptor Kenzi Shiokava, Who Turned Discarded Wood Into Magnetic Totems, Dies Aged 82 | Culture & Leisure
LOS ANGELES – Kenzi Shiokava, who died on June 18 at the age of 82 from chronic illnesses exacerbated by injuries from a recent car accident, became a sculptor more by accident than intention. This was in the early 1970s, and he was completing his fourth year of undergraduate studies at the Chouinard Art Institute.
When he enrolled in school, Shiokava set himself the goal of becoming a painter. But a condition of obtaining the diploma obliges him to take a course in sculpture. The very idea filled him with doubt. “Two weeks went by and I had no idea what to do,” Shiokava told the Los Angeles Times in a 2016 profile.
He ended up finding the answer in his own backyard. One day, while tidying the garden of his home in Highland Park, he came across several pieces of wood he had accumulated, including an old railroad tie from the Angel’s Flight funicular in downtown Los Angeles.
“I started to clean some of the wood and I realize: ‘This is it! It’s wood! ‘ », Remembers Shiokava. “He has a story. It’s right there. I was so excited nothing else mattered.
He transformed the tie, along with the other pieces of wood he had collected, into a series of vertical totemic figures which he exhibited in the Chouinard gallery in 1972. The exhibition caught the attention of the gallery owner. by LA Joan Ankrum who offered the artist a solo exhibition.
After that, Shiokava never looked back. In fact, it was work in the style of those early wooden totem poles, carefully carved from dead tree trunks and salvaged telephone poles – pieces that looked more like spirits than objects – that has caught the attention of a pair of curators affiliated with the Hammer Museum. that four decades later. These curators, Aram Moshayedi and Hamza Walker, ended up including a large selection of works by Shiokava in the 2016 Biennale “Made in LA”.
A collection of abstract wooden totem poles – resembling spirits – rest on a large, shallow museum plinth.
At 78 years old, Shiokava became a star of the series – featured in international media and her name verified in W magazine. It was an unlikely turning point for the artist who, all her life, had operated on the fringes of the world of the art of Los Angeles. And who had made a living not as an artist, but as a gardener. Among his clients was actor Marlon Brando, who had one of Shiokava’s pieces in his personal art collection.
Shiokava, whose death was first announced on social media by the Japanese American National Museum and confirmed to the LA Times by his niece Xantipa Reed, was a beaming and kind figure, far more concerned with the process of creation than with the delivery of joy. the circuit of galleries. One of his favorite activities? Attend jazz concerts at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and dance with wild abandon.
“He was the kind of person who, until his death, only wanted to be in his studio,” says Moshayedi, currently curator Robert Soros at The Hammer. “The time he spent in the studio was a whole different time. The works would remain there in various states of incompleteness for decades… and new objects would enter the studio and they might or might not become parts of works that were in various states of dormancy.
Even after the Hammer exhibition began to gain the attention of media, museums and galleries, Shiokava stuck to his vision. “He had made a conscious decision after this attention to continue working in the way he had established himself for himself,” Moshayedi explains. “He wasn’t going to get carried away by the speed and intensity of the contemporary art world.”
Prior to the Hammer exhibition, Shiokava had regularly exhibited his sculptures and assemblages in museums and galleries in Southern California, including the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the Oceanside Museum of Art, and the Jack Tilton Gallery in Culver City. . And as the casual collector materialized in his studio, wider commercial success proved elusive.
But the biennale catapulted it into institutional consciousness.
As part of the Hammer exhibit, he received the Mohn Public Recognition Award of $ 25,000. In 2018, he was included in a Pacific Standard Time exhibition at the Japanese American National Museum: “Transpacific Borderlands: The Art of Japanese Diaspora in Lima, Los Angeles, Mexico City and Sao Paulo”.
The following year, the Ben Maltz Gallery at the Otis College of Art and Design organized a solo study of his work.
A review of this exhibition by critic Geoffrey Mak in Artforum described his works as having “an almost spiritual function”. Indeed, the title of the show was “Spiritual Material”. The assemblages, which included collections of fallen leaves, writes Mak, “hint at the passage of life; the artist could be the filter, bringing together and re-injecting these objects with latent purpose. As Times critic Leah Ollman wrote of the works in the exhibition, “the continuity between matter and spirit can be felt viscerally when standing in front of these other vertical bodies rising from the sky. terrestrial plane “.
The artist has always expressed his deep gratitude for the attention he received late in his career. As he told KPCC in a 2016 interview, “Now I know my job is going to outlive me. “
Kenzi Shiokava was born on August 29, 1938 in Santa Cruz do Rio Pardo, Brazil, to a couple of Japanese traders. From childhood he said he saw something “sacred” in art, but never imagined that it could turn into a career.
He ended up in the United States in 1964 after a friend in the Brazilian military offered him a free seat on a military flight to Los Angeles. With a few paintings and sketchbooks, he was accepted at Chouinard (later CalArts), where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in fine arts in 1974. He then completed a master’s degree in fine arts at Otis in 1974..
For more than four decades, Shiokava has produced sculptures and assemblages inspired by Brazilian and Japanese motifs, as well as influences he encountered in Los Angeles, namely a generation of black American assemblage artists such as Betye Saar. , Noah Purifoy and John Outterbridge. In 1994, he was the subject of a solo exhibition at the Watts Towers Arts Center.
The curators of the Hammer Biennale found Shiokava’s work after seeing his name featured in a group show that had occurred over a decade before, then made serious sleuths to track down his whereabouts and a phone number. He was exactly where he had been for years: he lived and worked in a studio in Compton.
In an interview with the LA Times in 2016, Walker, who is now director of artistic nonprofit LAXART, said that Shiokava’s low profile can be attributed to his reluctance to self-promote, but also to the nature of his work and the communities he was part of. “It circulated in a very different, very regional area – a region within a region,” he said. In addition, “it does not match any category, but it does match all of them.”
To support his artistic career, Shiokava worked as a gardener for much of his life – a day job he much preferred to teaching. “Too stressful,” he once told the LA Times. “Gardening is much more interesting for me.
It was in this area that he got a contract to clean a fish pond in a posh house in the Hollywood Hills. This house belonged to Brando, for whom he would work for more than 20 years. The two have developed a cordial relationship. “He was like, ‘Kenzi, you make me so happy,’” Shiokava later told KPCC.
Thanks to Brando, he meets another great Hollywood collector: Jack Nicholson, who also acquires a sculpture. After delivering the piece, Shiokava kept the wooden crate in which the work had been transported so that he could transform it into something new.
“I think he was ahead of society because he believed that you could use garbage to make art,” says Reed, his niece. “It was important for us to see the beauty in the things people throw away. He believed in recycling as an art form. There is beauty in everything, you just have to look for it.
After retiring from gardening, Shiokava focused exclusively on his art – working in his Compton studio for more than two decades. In addition to Reed, he is survived by three sisters – Lourdes Larkins, Miyoko Hilton, Lucia Teraishi – all based in Los Angeles, as well as a brother, Airton Shiokava, who lives in Brazil. His surviving family members also include his niece Hime Dequeiroz and a nephew, Glen Teraishi.
In 2016, when KPCC reporter John Rabe asked Shiokava if he was religious, the artist explained that he was Catholic.
“I have a lot of faith,” he said, pointing to the sky. “Because now I’m more there than here.”
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