Kawano Shoko: Catalogue Essay

TAI Modern
Jul 20, 2016 11:30PM

Kawano Shoko was an unlikely winner in 2002. The competition for the Cotsen Bamboo Prize, a biannual bamboo art competition juried by three American judges, was fierce that year. The finalists included some of the most talented and decorated artists in working in the medium—Fujitsuka Shosei, Honda Syoryu, Kawashima Shigeo and Tanioka Shigeo. To pick only one winner would be very difficult. Little known and untitled at the national level, Kawano was the clear underdog.

Kawano Shoko, Ripples, 2015

The three newly created works Kawano submitted for consideration were beautifully woven in the open twill plaiting style that would become his signature. Bruce Pepich, director of the Racine Art Museum and one of the three judges, commented that “this artist’s work embodies the perfect marriage of traditional and contemporary; craftsmanship and sculpture; the past and the future.” An award ceremony was held in Tokyo and at the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco. Winning the 2002 Cotsen Bamboo Prize placed Kawano on the international scene.

Back home, Kawano’s stature rose as well, and his artworks began to be consistently accepted into the prestigious annual exhibitions of the Japan Traditional Craft Arts Association. Kawano’s next major turning point came in 2006 when Japan’s Agency of Cultural Affairs requested that the Living National Treasure, Hayakawa Shokosai V, conduct a series of special workshops to pass down his artmaking philosophy and the secret techniques of the multi-generational Hayakawa family tradition. Kawano was among the seven artists chosen to take Shokosai V’s classes in 2006 and 2007.

The Japanese bamboo art world is a small one with only several dozen professionals and very few young up-and-comers. Having himself benefitted from Shokosai V’s valuable instruction and wishing to nurture the future of his art form, Kawano moved to the remote island of Sado in the Sea of Japan to teach at a newly established bamboo art school. From 2008 to 2013, Kawano and fellow artist Honma Hideaki taught an ambitious and thorough three-year curriculum to aspiring artists. Many of their former students, such as Ebana Misaki, Honda Seikai, Nakamura Tomoyuki, and Watanabe Chiaki, have gone on to become artists in their own right.

“Being native to southern Japan, the long severe winters on Sado Island were depressing. Everywhere I could see was totally gray and gloomy,” says Kawano. After returning to his hometown in 2013, Kawano isolated himself in his new studio, not even socializing with friends and peers, but often looking out onto his sunny garden. His ambition was to realize a new visual expression by integrating an unprecedented variety of color and pattern into his signature open twill plaited baskets. Kawano’s lace-like plaiting becomes the vehicle for communicating a whole new vocabulary of shape, color, space, motion, and texture—and beyond this, the vision and spirit of the artist.

Kawano sometimes describes himself as a ‘specialist’ in open twill plaiting. In any case, he is a virtuoso; and he has explored the possibilities of this particular technique to an extent that no other artist can claim.

Kawano Shoko, Autumn Field, 2015

Many of the artist’s vessels seem simple at first glance but the work’s sophistication and complexity reveals itself in the subtle shift from one basic geometric form to another. In Kawano’s work, you will often slowly realize that the seemingly simple contours of a basket have, over the course of less than ten inches, transitioned from a rectangular base into a globe before ending gracefully in an ellipse. Kawano has near-perfect command of the spacing between each finely split bamboo strip. He creates the symmetries and asymmetries of his final form by narrowing and widening the open spaces in the weave, using no tools or measurements beyond his finely honed senses of vision and touch. Kawano’s new use of color accentuates the amazing refinement of his shapes.

Another characteristic of Kawano’s work is its ability to convey a sense of being both transparent and solid. The work exists on a perceptual knife’s edge. Sometimes Kawano emphasizes surface texture by adding an exterior layer of parallel bamboo strips to his airy vessels. His use of vertical insertions pays tribute to a long-standing Oita tradition. In the case of Rain Lily (2010) and the aptly-named Remembrance (2010), he adapts this technique to honor his instructor Shokosai V, by incorporating the hand-carved plates of bamboo that the former Living National Treasure was known for.

The gallery was recently shocked to learn that, despite his talent and accomplishments, Kawano’s exhibition in the summer of 2016 will be his first solo show, not just in the US but in Japan as well. Kawano is looking forward to meeting the people who journey to Santa Fe to see his show, and hopes that this exhibition will open yet another door of his artistic career.

—Koichi Okada

TAI Modern