Woodcarving, a once-popular form of artistic expression, is enjoying a revival--especially among contemporary Japanese artists born in the 1960s and '70s.
Many of these works, which are often colored, represent human figures, animals and still life.
Yoshimasa Tsuchiya is known for his realistic but exquisitely and delicately shaped wood sculptures of animals, both real and in myth.
In stark contrast, Atsuhiko Misawa creates sculptures of alligators, bears and other animals that seem to have stepped out of picture books. His finished works are defined by gouged chisel marks.
Works of these two artists are now on display at the Yokosuka Museum of Art in Kanagawa Prefecture. The exhibition, "Atsumare! Omoshiro Dobutsu Ten" (Collection of intriguing arts featuring animals), runs through Aug. 28.
Other Japanese sculptors can also be grouped roughly into two camps: creators of highly realistic works who don't skimp on detail and those who boldly hack and hew wood into rugged and powerful designs.
Yoshihiro Suda, whose works are on permanent exhibition at the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo, is known for extraordinarily realistic sculptures of flowers and weeds that seem to grow out of the floors and the walls of the galleries. His workmanship is exquisite.
Another reputed artist in this category is Fuyuki Maehara, who creates hyper-realistic sculptures presenting mundane everyday items such as empty cans. His technique is without peer.
An important sculptor belonging to the latter group is Izumi Kato, who is holding a one-man exhibition at Six, a gallery in Minami-Semba, Osaka, through Sept. 11. Kato is a painter, but is also well known for rough-hewn sculptures representing the kind of eerie human figures that feature so predominantly in his paintings.
Hideki Iinuma carves figures of young women, mainly those appearing in fashion magazines, in a uniquely vigorous and lively style. His works are graphically powerful. Iinuma is also holding a solo show, at XYZcollective in Tokyo's Setagaya Ward, through Aug. 24. The show will then travel to the city of Kanazawa in Ishikawa Prefecture.
Another name on the long list of talented contemporary Japanese wood sculptors is Koji Tanada, whose works fall between the two categories.
So, how should one explain this woodcarving boom among Japanese artists?
Suda says that carving wood is a pleasurable activity in itself. He also notes that the texture of wood lends itself to realism.
Atsushi Kume, a curator at the Hokkaido Museum of Modern Art who was in charge of an exhibition featuring contemporary wooden sculptures held there last autumn, says the trend is in some ways linked to the back-to-nature movement and the surging popularity of Buddhist statues and pop-art figurines. He also notes that many wooden sculptures of today draw inspiration from paintings.
Iinuma says that coloring is important in both painting and sculpture to create an overall impression.
"They've chosen woodcarving because wood is easy to process," says Kume.
Modern mainstream sculpture, as represented by Auguste Rodin, paid greater attention to the rhythms of volume and space.
In this tradition, it is generally thought that the use of coloring and excessive technique turns sculptures into ornamental works of craftsmen.
It seems a bid odd that so many contemporary sculptors choose this path over the abstract approach.
Kazuo Amano, an art critic, says this trend has its genesis in the works of Japanese sculptors who appeared on the art scene in the period of postmodernism in the 1980s. They include Takashi Fukai and Katsura Funakoshi.
They added gold leaf and paint to their works as a way to add mythical narrative, according to Amano.
"But the expressions of today's sculptors are marked by more personal and daily symbolism," Amano says. "This may represent a tectonic shift in the art of sculpture that can only happen in this digital age, when there is no strong sense of material and artistic methods. This means styles can be chosen freely."
Whatever the meaning of the phenomenon, woodcarving has emerged as a revitalized medium of artistic expression in which tradition meets modernity.
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