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For gardener-turned-artist Kenzi Shiokava, new show proves wood is the ultimate ‘Spiritual Material’

For gardener-turned-artist Kenzi Shiokava, new show proves wood is the ultimate ‘Spiritual Material’
"Spiritual Material," an exhibition of work by Kenzi Shiokava, features about 50 of the artist's works at Ben Maltz Gallery at Otis College of Art and Design. (Otis College of Art and Design)

Kenzi Shiokava, born 1938, has an academic résumé that reads like those of many established L.A. artists: bachelor’s in fine arts from Chouinard (later CalArts), MFA from Otis College of Art and Design. But his profile remained fairly low until 2016, when his work entered the Hammer Museum’s “Made in L.A.” biennial and the exhilarating assembly of sculptures earned him the Public Recognition Award — best in show, by popular vote.

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Now the Ben Maltz Gallery at Otis offers a broader view of Shiokava's career in “Spiritual Material,” curated by Kate McNamara and featuring 50 works, most dating between 1985 and 2005.

Kenzi Shiokava's Untitled ("Let It Be Series"), 2005, wood, plastic figurines. The work is on view at the Ben Maltz Gallery at Otis College of Art and Design.
Kenzi Shiokava's Untitled ("Let It Be Series"), 2005, wood, plastic figurines. The work is on view at the Ben Maltz Gallery at Otis College of Art and Design. (Otis College of Art and Design)

Elegiac wall-mounted assemblages incorporate dried bamboo leaves and tableaux of toy figurines in shadowboxes suggest subtle social critiques. But the most soul-stirring of Shiokava's works — and the rich heart of the show — are free-standing forms in carved wood.

An untitled piece from the “Primal Totem Series” (1986) is a breathtaking example, an elegant and formidable presence with a profound sense of authority. Shiokava hand-carved the work from a telephone pole, leaving the familiar uniform cylinder partially intact and burning its rough skin black. He scooped out one side and smoothed the interior so the piece, about 10 feet tall, stands like a giant, horned personage shaped to signal affirmation, embrace. The grain pattern of repeated, rising craggy peaks at eye level hints further of physical and metaphorical ascent.

Installation view of "Spiritual Material," an exhibition of work by Kenzi Shiokava at Ben Maltz Gallery.
Installation view of "Spiritual Material," an exhibition of work by Kenzi Shiokava at Ben Maltz Gallery. (Otis College of Art and Design)

Totems, shaman figures and staffs fill the gallery like an august congregation. One bears a glass sphere as surrogate skull, capped by an abalone shell and trailing strands of seashells. Shiokava bedecks others with beads, twine and feathers. In two pieces with the latent energy of musical instruments, he threads dragon tree fronds through the holes of chicken wire that rises in a column from a planter.

Shiokava had worked as a gardener and has long been an artist-in-residence at the Watts Towers Arts Center. He is fluent with the textures and forms of trees and plants, and he is alert to the reverberations of meaning possible in found-object assemblage — how the act of salvage connotes not just material but spiritual renewal.

The continuity between matter and spirit can be viscerally felt when standing before these fellow vertical bodies rising from the earthly plane.

Ben Maltz Gallery, Otis College of Art and Design, 9045 Lincoln Blvd., L.A. Open Tuesdays-Saturdays, through April 20. (310) 665-6905, otis.edu

Kenzi Shiokava's Untitled ("Elegy Series"), 1994, pool filter, bamboo leaves, metal, ceramic.
Kenzi Shiokava's Untitled ("Elegy Series"), 1994, pool filter, bamboo leaves, metal, ceramic. (Otis College of Art and Design)
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