Shio Kusaka at Blum & Poe Los Angeles
By: Andy Campbell
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.
Functioning like an intermission by dint of its placement in the middle of Kusaka’s long pink runway, but also an extension of the core ideas of relational difference, was a biblical or militaristic—choose your favorite resonance—queue of diminutive figurines of animals, real and imaginary, contemporary and prehistoric. Here, two small penguins followed in single file behind two larger ones (a portrait of a nuclear family if there ever was one). There, a unicorn stood proudly, flanked by a trio of mandrills. Five elegantly abstracted sauropods, a long-necked infraorder of dinosaurs, formed the only grouping in this ceramic menagerie alike in both size and type—an organizational strategy that perversely made the group read as a variation from the norm of heterogeneity already established. It was variation and the inversion of normativity, not order, that was the constant in Kusaka’s compelling installation. Her arrangement provided a material-specific aesthetic education, an example of what Gayatri Spivak calls “an imaginative training for epistemological performance.”
Kusaka’s installation worked productively against the evaluative criteria still so predominant in fine-art ceramics of the singular vessel. In clustering her works into discrete groups along a continuous line, Kusaka affirmed that her practice is most of all about relationships between objects individuated and defined by their differences. Woe betide the collector or institution that acquires just one!