Polychrome Costumed Figurines
Recently, I stumbled upon this exhibit
on the roof of the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago
Quite literally stumbled,
because these 20-inch statues were placed
directly on the pavement without pedestals.
Which makes it difficult to see the pieces,
though it does make for some fun photo opportunities.
But the thought did occur to me that if pedestals had been used,
this show would never have been mounted
on the Roehm Terrace of the Art Institute,
a space that has been dedicated to the display of contemporary sculpture.
The only thing contemporary about Suzuki's work,
besides the clothing of his models,
is the incongruous placement on the floor.
The history of polychrome figurines decked out
in contemporary costume is a very long one.
Above is one of my favorite pieces in the Art Institute,
dating back to the Tang Dynasty, c. 800
Here's a wonderful piece I saw in Munich about 40 years ago
- a Morris dancer by Erasmus Grasser, dating back to 1500
Moving into the 20th Century,
here's an art deco figure by Ferdinand Preiss
that seems to pay particular attention
to how the clothing naturally hangs.
But not all polychrome costumed figurines belong in art museums.
At least, not the museums that I would like to visit.
I can't stand cute.
Admittedly, this is a personal preference
that I do not share with the majority of humanity,
but there has been a significant minority
over the centuries who sought out the visually strong and dynamic,
and perhaps because powerful pieces summon powerful responses,
that taste seems to have prevailed
in the selection of historical art for art museums.
that most aesthetic of world cultures,
has produced its share of costumed statuettes
that are no more than gift-shop-pleasant
Yonehara Unkai (1869-1925)
But they also have,
quite a tradition of strong figure sculpture
that continued into the modern era.
Asakura Kyoko (b. 1925)
As that tradition entered the 20th Century,
several young sculptors went to Paris to study,
so it began to reflect European sculpture
Satoru Kitagou (b. 1977)
And it continues up through the postwar generations.
Katsura Funakoshi (b. 1951)
Including the above sculptor with whom Tomoaki Suzuki studied.
Should Funakoshi, Kitagou, and Suzuki
be recognized as contemporary artists,
important enough to have one-person shows
in galleries of contemporary art?
Their work is indeed noticeably distinct from
anything that came before them -
but the same could also be said for most living artists,
no matter how traditional they may be called.
It is very, very difficult to make a piece feel
like it came from another century.
That would require a skillful forgery.
Usually, a museum or gallery of contemporary art
demands something that can be perceived as more confrontational
with past ideals, habits, understandings, or visions
( or, at least similar to other things that have already been recognized as such).
It's an anti-aesthetic best expressed by a leading art critic, Jerry Saltz, 20 years ago:
“The fact that everyone hates this show made me like it and know that it’s important.”
I just don't think this doll-like, expressionless piece
by Suzuki qualifies.
Except for its confrontational placement
directly on the ground
where it doesn't belong.
(the Art Institute uses the above image
to promote the show on its website)
Stephan Balkenhol (b.1957)
It has been pointed out to me that the above sculptor
of polychrome costumed figurines
has indeed been having a good career in the contemporary art world
And his pieces are displayed
up on pedestals.
Frankly, I was surprised.
(he has a piece in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago,
gifted after his 1998 show at the Arts Club)
Balkenhol's pieces are usually more expressive,
or even confrontational,
as exemplified by the piece shown above.
But still, I'd be really surprised if he were given a one-person show at the museum.
(14 years after its acquisition, the piece in the museum collection has yet to be put on display)
The above seems like a more typical example of small figures
in a contemporary gallery -
where there's a strong sense that something's terribly wrong -
and the pieces appear to be
intentionally clumsy and ugly as sculptures.
It would also be un-surprising to find the above kind
of stiff, toy-like figures in a contemporary gallery.
Because positive aesthetic qualities can divert attention
from the concept being explored,
and most of those concepts
are meant to be critical
rather than affirmative,
of life in the world as we know it.
Below is small selection of polychrome costumed figurines
by other postwar artists that I would also be
happily surprised to see in a solo exhibit
-- or, actually, any kind of exhibit --
at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Unless, perhaps, they were put on the floor
or otherwise displayed so that they were difficult to see:
Juan Martinez Lax