Tomoaki Suzuki – Roehm Terrace, Art Institute, through Oct. 27
It doesn’t look like Japanese artists are ever going to shake their aesthetic inclinations however alien they might be to the provocative anti-aesthetics of contemporary art. Tomoaki Suzuki can’t stop himself from making his 20-inch statues look really good, even if he places them on the floor where it’s difficult to discern their quality.
He makes expressionless polychrome figures that in many ways resemble the carefully detailed dolls one might find in Japanese gift shops. It’s just that instead of pretty Geishas in kimonos, he represents the handsome young people of his London neighborhood in the kind of clothing that expresses their individuality. By placing them directly on the floor, he offers the thrill of the incongruous, but he’s not just a skilled model maker, or a conceptual artist who hires one.
He’s in a tradition of figure sculpture, as received from his teacher, Katsura Funikoshi, whose father was also a sculptor. Though enhanced by the fluid naturalism of Rodin and late 19th C. France, this tradition remains essentially Japanese in its straightforward inner strength as achieved by the execution of crisp planes carved across the surface. He has created a specific posture, character, and costume for each person, but though great attention has been paid to every eyelash and belt buckle of his British models, they have a distinctly Japanese elegance and attitude. And the paint has been applied with a sensitivity to color and pattern more than to specify details of costume. Like many Japanese sculptors over the past thousand years, Suzuki is a wood carver, though in this display, the carvings have been cast in bronze, allowing them to be displayed in an outdoor setting like the Roehm Terrace high atop the Modern Wing at the Art Institute. And what a magnificent setting it is! – offering the magnificent steel and glass skyline that rises just north of Grant Park.
Even the largest sculpture can feel dinky on that heroic, sunlit platform – but surprisingly Suzuki’s figures feel large and important, even if you have to crawl around on your hands and knees to properly see them. It’s a good bet that eventually his work will be displayed up on pedestals, allowing viewers to properly see it without scuffing their knees. That may defy the artist’s original intention, but perhaps that intention was only to display it in the way most suitable to attract the contemporary art world.