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For over half a century now, Kenzi Shiokava has been collecting objects and carving wood. Over time, he’s built up a physical compendium of work that mimics the accumulation and degradation of life and death. A survey of 50 of Shiokava’s mostly untitled assemblages and sculptures is currently on view at his alma mater, Otis College of Art and Design. In addition to his studio practice, Shiokava worked as a gardener for much of his life—a profession based on a meditative activity that requires time, patience, and the balancing of brain and body. The slow and steady, labor-intensive nature of planting and pruning instinctively translates to the similarly measured conception and production of his visual artworks, whether whittled, constructed, or simply sorted.
A spectrum of rather stoic and somber pieces adorn the gallery’s perimeter walls. First, there are six nearly flat, rectangular reliquaries (from his “Elegy Series”) hanging in close proximity to each other. Their structural surfaces are all made of metal, each of them have bamboo leaves stuffed in pool filters affixed to them; three hold fragments of religious ceramic objects, with a piece of a ceramic floral arrangement stuck to a fourth. Some people believe in resurrection, others believe in reincarnation; Shiokava not only laments the dead, but also suggests that he believes objects, like beings, are not relegated to one life only.
On the back wall, vintage photographs cover a tall, narrow, framed found painting; it affectionately resembles the codified decor of an “Old Hollywood” haunt more than a saccharine scrapbook, making Shiokava come across as both sincere and straightforward with his idiomatic and nostalgic touch, a welcome reprieve in the contemporary labyrinth of cynicism. A shrine-like presentation on a white museum plinth features stacks of metal and wooden boxes filled with figurines, doll heads, photographs, plants, and other items. Shiokava seems to insist that the natural and superficial alike ought to be revered in the present and conserved for the future.
But positioned on the floor in spread-out clusters are the real showstoppers—a large quantity of altered timber take the form of anti-totems, giant wabi-sabi chess pieces. A manipulated old telephone pole, its wires dangling, gives off a svelte Cousin Itt vibe—creepy, kooky, mysterious, and spooky. Others—through Shiokava’s attentive shaping, smoothing, and staining—convey a serene joy and constant calmness. A good gardener must be able to know what his plants need and which ones can coexist; Shiokava revitalizes, reshapes, and preserves his objects, showcasing both an innate understanding of materials and a developed consciousness of what to do with them.
Kenzi Shiokava: Spiritual Material runs from January 26–April 20, 2019 at Ben Maltz Gallery (9045 Lincoln Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90045).