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[whitespace] Sculpture Silver Metal: Susan Chin's intricate pendant hints at the diversity of Asian metalwork.

Photograph by George Post

Visual Poetry

Cabrillo Gallery's exhibit of Asian metal sculpture is a unique alloy of East and West

By Julia Chiapella

METALSMITHING is an uncommon subject for a gallery exhibition. Existing in that stepchild zone between art and craft, the medium seldom receives the attention it deserves. Couple this overlooked status with Asian artists working in this age-old medium, and one begins to understand curator Dawn Nakanishi's drive to pull together an exhibition that would begin to remedy the underrated status of both medium and artist.

"They've committed themselves and shared their work," says Nakanishi, an instructor in small metal sculpture at Cabrillo College, "but they haven't gotten the recognition that they deserve."

"Asian Roots, Western Soil: Visual Poetry in Metal," on display at the Cabrillo Gallery through March 9, features 19 artists of Asian descent from across the country. Nakanishi selected them not only for their talent and achievement in metalsmithing but also because many of them are working in almost-forgotten techniques, ones they have researched and gone back to old masters to learn. The result is a collection of work from contemporary Asian artists who bring their cultural heritage and influence right along with them.

That the work here borrows and begs from a continuum that includes Asian customs as well as contemporary sensibilities is no surprise. Any one of these pieces taken out of context wouldn't be nearly as revealing as the combination of artists included in this exhibition.

This is also an exhibition that can educate--many of the pieces include materials that may sound foreign to the average ear. Komelia Okim, for example, has conducted research in Korea to bring back a traditional Korean metal technique called kum-boo. Without using solder or flux, kum-boo is a process that allows 24-karat gold to be overlayed on silver using heat. Okim features it here on a set of vessels including a teapot and sugar container.

And there's mokume gane, a metal lamination technique that fuses different alloys without using solder. Instead, heat and compression bond the materials together and the resulting layers are cut away to reveal their stratification. Hiroko Sako Pjonowski uses mokume gane in his work at the Cabrillo Gallery and Nakanishi says he courted an old Japanese master of the technique, eventually winning his trust. He brought mokume gane back to the United States in the 1970s and was part of a resurgence of interest in the technique that helped revive the craft in Japan.

The exhibition brims with stories like these. Artist Mariko Kusumoto is the daughter of a Buddhist priest. She spent her childhood in a 400-year-old temple, something she took for granted at the time. But transplanted to the United States, her experience became more valuable and clearly influences her work.

Likewise, Christine Clark's metal sculpture reflects her mother's experiences in Hiroshima when the atom bomb was dropped. Fortunate to escape and still healthy, she nevertheless was privy to atrocities that had a deep and lasting impact on her daughter who interprets them through the lens of her sculpture.

And there's the riveting work of Ruth Asawa, now 75, who has always believed in the importance of art education. The mother of six children, she was once photographed by Imogen Cunningham in the '50s with four bare-bottomed babies surrounding her as she created one of her wire pieces. "She wanted her children to watch her do art," says Nakanishi.

Particularly moving in its artistry is Nakanishi's own Touches Life, which Nakanishi created three months before being diagnosed with breast cancer.

Don't go to "Asian Roots, Western Soil" expecting to see clichés; you won't find them there. This melding of Eastern philosophy with Western sensibility brings with it an earnest fluidity that retains the best of Asian influence. The sophistication and wit in this exhibition clearly indicate a population in transition, as artists with their roots in the soil of two cultures create their own set of rules.

Asian Roots, Western Soil: Visual Poetry in Metal, Cabrillo College Gallery, Bldg. 1000, 6500 Soquel Dr., Aptos. (831.479.6308)

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From the February 28-March 7, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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