Detail: Life-size, fully sculpted figures rendered in lacquer and gold powder will be presented in Gen Saratani: Maki-e Sculpture at Yoshii Gallery from September 12 to October 20, 2019. The three-dimensional contemporary works, from 2018-2019, are on an unprecedented scale for this venerable Japanese medium and technique, extending its artistic possibilities to a new level.
A master of the traditional medium of lacquer sprinkled with metallic powder, or maki-e, Gen Saratani (b. 1980) has created two dynamic works that reflect a traditional Japanese cultural interest in nature but with a twist, at least to the Western eye. He presents not the serenity of a lotus blossom or a cloud-shrouded moon but an impending denouement between predator and prey.
Untitled (Snake) shows a snake (a symbol of rebirth in Japanese culture) coiled and draped around a pole, its mouth agape, about to snare a frog, which in Japanese symbolism represents a return. Saratani’s snake is a luminous, sinewy figure that measures nearly ten feet. Lacquered leaves descend from the top of the pole, suggestive of a branch.
Saratani developed the snake’s form using a mixture of very fine-grained whetstone powder, lacquer, and water to create a malleable clay-like medium, which is not known to have been used on this scale previously. The addition of numerous layers of lacquer create the seemingly glowing surface. The maki-e surface is a deep, burnished gold, which is the result of the application of an unusually large amount of 24 karat gold powder. Each of the thousands of scales in its ornately patterned skin is finely articulated and carved by hand.
Untitled (Carp) presents two carp on the verge of competing to snatch a dragonfly. The bellies of the carp rest on a vertical lacquered pole, its surface rippled to suggest the surface of a pond. Where the fish appear solid and dense, the dragonfly – made of cloth encased in lacquer, molded, and then shaped with additional layers of lacquer and adorned with silver powder – is a work of lightness and delicacy.
The scale of Saratani’s work and its narrative power are exceptional in lacquer works. Lacquer is a toxic substance made from tree sap and has been used for millennia to embellish objects with a hard, lustrous and highly reflective surface. Functionally, lacquer is durable and waterproof. The practice of decorating it with powdered gold, silver, or other metals was first established in Japan in the eighth century C.E. Working with lacquer is a labor intensive process. In its highest artistic form, it requires dozens of layers of the refined sap, each of which is allowed to dry and then polished. Maki-e has traditionally been used with small objects, including portable containers such as incense and document boxes, among others.
Gen Saratani is a New York-based artist who works exclusively with the organic materials found in the traditional fine arts of Japan. Following high school and college studies in the arts in Japan, where he grew up, he served a three-year apprenticeship with his father, Tomizo, a lacquer artist, and a two-year apprenticeship studying maki-e under Akira Takeda in Kyoto. In addition to his own work as an artist, he has conserved thousands of works of art and lectured, led workshops, or given demonstrations on working with lacquer or conservation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Art and Design, the Fashion Institute of Technology, Parsons School of Design, and numerous other organizations.