Shio Kusaka: Selected Press

Each year, the Isamu Noguchi Award honors and recognizes the work of individuals who "embody global consciousness, design innovation, and emphasis on cultural exchanges between Eastern and Western cultures." This year's 2021 award will be presented to artist Shio Kusaka and architect Toshiko Mori. 

Both women, born in Japan and practicing in the United States, have had illustrious careers where their work and contribution to art, design, and architecture positions them as leaders in their respective fields.  

Artist Shio Kusaka

Born in Morioka, Japan, Kusaka received her BFA from the University of Washington, Seattle, and lives and works in Los Angeles. Her work focuses on innovative and gracefully playful approaches to the ceramic medium. "Kusaka merges sculpture and drawing, representation and minimalism. Her work synthesizes from a broad range of visual culture, from ancient Japanese pottery to Sol LeWitt's wall drawings, asserting the role of ceramics within the realm of contemporary art," explains the Isamu Noguchi Foundation. 
 

Shio Kusaka is best known for her ceramic and stoneware vessels that draw on Japanese, Chinese, Cypriot, and Greek traditional forms and practices. Her work, for all its institutional recognition, is as functional as it is artistic. Born in 1972 in Japan, artist Shio Kusaka now lives and works in Los Angeles.

Having graduated from the University of Washington in Seattle in 2001 with a BFA in ceramics, the artist moved to Los Angeles in 2003 and had her first show in 2005 at Tortoise Venice. Her work has since been included in the Whitney Biennial in 2014 and she received the Isamu Noguchi Award in 2021.

Erudite and intimate influences
Her use of shapes, colour, and technique are heavily informed by the Yayoi period in Japan (around 300 BC to 300 AD), named so after the place in Tokyo where pottery from the Yayoi period was first found. While Shio Kusaka’s influences may be traditional, the final form of her ceramics are often off-beat, a Greek vessel may take on the appearance of a watermelon, or an entire gallery filled with small ceramic dinosaurs, the latter influenced by the presence of her small children. Her work equally inscribes itself in more recent art history, transposing the work of artists such as Agnes Martin or Sol Le Witt in ceramic form. 

This history is enriched with personal experience: Shio Kusaka grew up in Morioka, observing the chinaware used by her grandmother during tea ceremonies. These diverse references and influences have made for a heterogeneous output over the years that defies categorisation or coherent organisation. 

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In an unusual move of an artist going from one megagallery to another, Shio Kusaka has departed Gagosian for David Zwirner, which has locations in New York, London, Paris, and Hong Kong. Gagosian had previously represented her alongside New York’s Anton Kern Gallery, the Modern Institute in Glasgow, London’s Greengrassi, and Blum & Poe, which has spaces in Los Angeles, Tokyo, and New York. Kusaka will be included in a group show with Zwirner in New York in November, and will continue to work with The Modern Institute, Greengrassi, and Blum & Poe.

In a statement, dealer David Zwirner said he has long admired Kusaka’s work since she began showing with Anton Kern in 2010. “Few artists have been as successful as Shio in bringing the world of ceramics into the contemporary context,” Zwirner said. “Her interest in and affinity for minimalism, the inherent restraint of her art making, her strength as a colorist, the elegance and thoughtfulness of her presentations, and, last but not least, the mastery of her craft make Shio Kusaka an entirely unique voice within the visual arts.”

Kusaka, who was born in Morioka, a city on Japan’s Honshu island, and moved to the United States in the early 1990s, is best known for her large-scale, ceramic-based sculptures that vary widely, though they often take the shape of vases. Some have abstract and geometric patterns—from wood grain to the seigaiha design of Japanese textiles—incised into their surfaces, while others are playful contemporary takes on ancient Greek pottery forms that incorporate scenes of dinosaurs or witches. Kusaka often creates the works in distinct series, and the works are usually displayed in large groupings.

Kusaka’s most recent solo exhibition opened in February at the Neutra VDL Studio and Residences in Los Angeles, where the artist has been based since 2001. For that exhibition, which was curated by Douglas Fogle and Hanneke Skerath, Kusaka placed her ceramic works, which drew influence from the work of Agnes Martin, Josef Albers, and Ellsworth Kelly, throughout the Richard Neutra–design space.

Other major exhibitions include a two-person show at the Museum Voorlinden in Wassenaar, the Netherlands, with her husband, fellow artist Jonas Wood, and the 2014 Whitney Biennial. Her art is held in the collections the Broad and the Hammer Museum, both in Los Angeles, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, as well as the Whitney Museum, which recently put it on display in its long-term permanent collection display “Making Knowing: Craft in Art, 1950–2019,” on view until 2022.

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The discovery, in 1884, of shards of historic pottery in the Yayoi neighborhood of present-day Tokyo lent the area’s name to a whole 1,300 years (roughly 1,000 BCE to 300 AD) of Japanese civilization. Distinct from the ornate ‘rope-patterned’ styles that preceded them, the loosened shapes of Yayoi pots reflected a newly agrarian focus, prioritizing utility over décor, quickness over formalism. The ceramics that emerge from the light-filled Los Angeles studio of Shio Kusaka feel similarly more concerned with life and lightness than the burden of tradition. Kusaka’s pots can incorporate everything: from the wondrous – dinosaurs! – to the quotidian sweetness of golden seed-studded strawberries.

Born in Morioka, Japan, Kusaka was inspired by the elegant dishes and cups that her grandmother used in traditional tea ceremonies, incorporating the ritual’s moments of reflection into her own process. When Kusaka moved to Los Angeles in 2003, the city’s thriving ceramic and crafts community allowed her to experiment with the shapes of clay as much as with the finishes she could use to adorn them.

 

Today, she shares a studio compound with her husband, the painter Jonas Wood and, though they maintain separate and distinct practices, the communal space produces evidence of a shared working life. Depictions of Kusaka’s vessels often pop up in Wood’s bold, graphic canvases and prints; Kusaka’s most playful forms sometimes literally take on the shapes of some of Wood’s favourite motifs.

Meanwhile, the mischievous dinosaurs that appear to have wandered from science textbooks into Kusaka’s studio testify to another familial influence: her young daughter Momo’s infatuation with the creatures of the Jurassic era. In the studio, Kusaka’s vessels are accompanied by a mini-menagerie of cheetahs, tigers, penguins and unicorns. Each one, naturally, is small enough to fit into a child’s grip. 

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A baseball swing is a very finely tuned instrument,’ Reggie Jackson once said of his greatest asset on the ball field. ’It is repetition, and more repetition, then a little more after that.’ The same might be said about the touch of a great ceramicist. While LA-based potter Shio Kusaka is almost self-deprecating to a fault about her own talent, she is effusive about the skills that have been honed by her assistants over the past few years. In short, they got so good at making larger pots – Kusaka focuses on more petite, asymmetrical vessels that show her hand in their construction – she asked them to start making traditional Japanese, Chinese, Greek and Cypriot forms.

When the wheel was invented, people all over the world tried to make a perfect circle, she explains. ’That was their goal but [some] people couldn’t do it because of their skill. But I like that feeling where it’s off,’ says Kusaka. ’It’s very different than making it off on purpose. That’s an expression. I grew up with that in Japan. I get shy from that and shy from the perfect form.’

Over the years, Kusaka has carved and painted her unintentionally off vessels to mimic the shape and feel of strawberries, the grids of Agnes Martin paintings, or dinosaurs from the pages of her children’s books, which made a splash at the 2014 Whitney Biennial. ’I was doing my forms, strawberries, and when I thought a Greek pot could be a strawberry... it really opened me up,’ she says.

That expansion is on full display tomorrow night at LA’s Blum & Poe, where Kusaka will unveil 75 new works that range from constellations of her iconic white porcelain vessels, which she’s been making for years, to a traditional Japanese stoneware pot painted with brown rainbows, and every colour and form in between. The show begins (or ends, depending on which entrance you fancy) with Kusaka’s ’summer section’, that features two large Greek strawberry vessels, a watermelon, two beach balls, and a pair of bikini clad women — taken from ’tacky Venice Beach postcards’ from the 1980s that she found in the bathroom of the studio she shares with her husband, painter Jonas Wood — carved onto a tall black Japanese urn. ’I wanted to do butterflies,’ says Kusaka. ’I don’t like drawing people.’

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More than one hundred ceramic vessels and figurines by Shio Kusaka populated a single pedestal (topped with light-pink Formica) that coursed through the three galleries of Blum & Poe’s ground floor. At one end of this giant horseshoe-shaped display was a grouping of pots whose decorative schemes suggested two strawberries, two beach balls, and a watermelon. At the other end was a cluster of five tall vases decorated with dinosaurs that grapple with one another, their claws and teeth drawing comical red-glaze blood. In between was a diverse range of experiments in arrangement and categorization, each group with its own internal logic and exceptions to its given rule.

Kusaka’s titling strategy is flatly descriptive, and here, as with all of her works, the vessels were categorized and numbered consecutively. These categories usually, but not always, described the pots’ primary visual elements or processes of construction. For example, (carved 90) (all works cited, 2016) features a design that is incised into the clay, and (wood 5) is glazed to resemble wood grain. Following this logic, one might imagine a vast catalogue raisonné of Kusaka’s work, with each creation appearing in both categorical and chronological order. This is the fantasy that Kusaka’s ceramics imply—that everything can be contained and cross-referenced.

However, Kusaka’s installation keenly denied order’s seductive comforts. In the midst of a copse of wood-grained pots was the small stoneware vase (peanut 1), similar in color to its neighbors (light and dark brown) but dissimilar in its peanutty patterning. But before one could be tempted to mark the peanut pot as the strange “other,” one noticed that the work was, in fact, not the only outlier. In the same group was another stoneware pot whose glaze was the color of unworn leather. This double-break in the group’s established rule was consistent enough throughout the exhibition to register as a knowing tactic; in each cluster there was always both an other and another other. In the previously mentioned group of blue-painted-dinosaur vases was one that featured woolly mammoths (creatures whose time on Earth postdates the dinosaurs by nearly sixty-five million years), as well as a white-and-cream-glazed “albino” dinosaur version that broke away from the blue-on-white palette of its neighbors.

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Summers in the art world consist largely of casual group shows often resembling the staged spreads of a design catalog. Unlike the action-packed movie blockbusters released during these months, galleries tend to provide the public with the equivalent of a lucid romantic comedy (or horror flick). Shio Kusaka, however, has ironically conceived and created a slick summer blockbuster in her current exhibition at Blum & Poe, clustered with artworks that, upon first glance, look like they could be at home in any chic living room shoot.

Kusaka has managed to direct and produce a sharply focused line of inquiry with a generally whimsical vibe. Walking clockwise through the gallery, the arc begins with a cool breeze—glazed and painted ceramic watermelons and beach balls. All of the works on view sit upon conjoined wooden plinths, the tops of which are finished in an airy cotton candy pink. Sloppy yet soothing grids, fervent patterns, and illusionistic illustrations of wood grain are all applied onto her multitudinous forms with equal aptitude. Kusaka cleverly introduces the next room with stark white functionality, followed by a marching line of cutesy animal figurines, and concludes with elegant stand-alone items that appear perfectly preserved from another era.

Free of cluttered wall space and industry prattle, the deliberate placement of such exquisite objects forces typically taboo words like “cute” or “clever” to seem frivolous, and the distinctions between “fine art” and anything else to seem inconsequential. Given the current level of social and political unrest, the question “What can art actually do?” begs to be answered. In the final room, Kusaka’s sleek stoneware piece depicting a brutal, bloody dinosaur battle, soaked and scarred into the surface, climactically proposes, “Whatever you want it to do.”

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History brims with artist couples: Surrealists Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning, modern masters Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe and abstract expressionists Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner. The latest twosome to join the international art circuit is Los Angeles painter Jonas Wood and his potter wife, Shio Kusaka. Together, they are helping to redefine creative collaboration.

Mr. Wood, 37, and Ms. Kusaka, 42, don’t merely work alongside each other in a shared studio. They continually refer to each other’s works in their own: Mr. Wood’s still-life interiors often include rows of striped and speckled pots and planters that echo Ms. Kusaka’s ceramics. Ms. Kusaka, in turn, often mimics images from his canvases—from his signature plants to basketballs—on her pots.

Now the couple’s overlapping oeuvres are getting an in-depth look for the first time in a Gagosian Gallery show in Hong Kong, “Jonas Wood and Shio Kusaka: Blackwelder,” up through Feb. 28. The show includes 10 paintings and 25 drawings by Mr. Wood and 53 pots by Ms. Kusaka, many of which haven’t been seen before.

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In this appealing show by husband-and-wife artists based in Los Angeles—she’s a potter; he’s a painter and printmaker—Kusaka and Wood draw inspiration not only from art historical precedents but also from each other. Kusaka’s Hellenistic stoneware vases, decorated with triceratopses and brontosauri and witches on broomsticks, are echoed in Wood’s paintings and drawings, which include jauntily decorated vessels, as well as flowering plants. Two of Wood’s gouaches depict short, wide pots whose surfaces redeploy Matisse’s “Red Studio” and “Red Room”: domestic visions of a painter who, like these talented figures, saw no point in distinguishing between the fine arts and the decorative. Through June 13.

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Growing up in Japan, Shio Kusaka had little interest in art. But her grandmother led traditional tea ceremonies, and those rituals helped guide Kusaka, many years later, toward making ceramics. "After being served, you spend time observing—the cup, the spoon," explains the artist, perched in the vast Los Angeles studio she shares with her husband, painter Jonas Wood. "This taught me to stop and look."

Kusaka has asked something similar of visitors to New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, where 39 of her porcelain and stoneware vessels are exhibited in the 2014 Biennial. It’s a breakthrough for the artist, whose work draws rhapsodic whispers from admiring critics and collectors but had yet to command such a big stage.

It wasn’t until after studying accounting in California and living for a stint in Colorado that Kusaka tried her hand at pottery. She went on to get a BFA at the University of Washington, where she toyed with an array of different media, finally returning to clay while assisting L.A.–based sculptor Charles Ray.

At first she focused on form, finishing porcelain in just clear or white glazes. Then, inspired by the artist Agnes Martin as well as by the subtle motifs of Japanese Iron Age ceramics, Kusaka began to apply patterns—painted, incised, or both. Her work soon caught the attention of Shane Campbell, Wood’s Chicago dealer, who offered her a show. The Anton Kern Gallery in New York, Greengrassi in London, and Blum & Poe in L.A. followed.

Her installations combine dozens of one-of-a-kind ceramics in quiet but arresting vignettes. "Shio employs the prosaic yet historical clay pot but plays with the idea of difference in repetition," says Biennial cocurator Michelle Grabner.

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