Divine and Vulgar

Katsuyo Aoki’s ornate skulls

Play a game of word association with the word skull and the first thing that comes to mind is death, but in cultural contexts the skull has taken other meanings: On a bottle of poison the skull is used as a warning of a serious potential danger if ingested. In fashion, the skull can be interpreted as a sign of rebellion among teenagers, but also edgy chic in couture. And in entertainment, poor Yorick’s skull becomes the object of Hamlet’s attention.
 
For Japanese ceramicist Katsuyo Aoki the skull symbolizes the duality of what is divine but also vulgar. The skull, she explains is first seen as an icon of death, but it can also be perceived as a religious symbol and image of worship. However that divinity becomes distilled and commonplace, in modern society, as skulls are used more and more as motifs for the whims of fashion and entertainment.
 
In making her orate skulls, Aoki uses porcelain clay. Various techniques are used to shape the skulls from molds to actual carving, but she adamantly states that the basis of her artwork is not so much the techniques or the process she employs. Instead, in shaping these free-flowing craniums, her attempt is to express the meaning behind the work that extracts a feeling of tension or even subtlety of the message within the materials and the shaped form. 
 
Aoki’s complex patterned skulls are nearly akin to the swirls, curlicues and spirals that she compares to overgrown, wild and delicate tendrils of plants. These appendages take on an otherworldly life of their own that feed off and ultimately kill other plants for their own survival. This cycle of nature fascinates Aoki, which she considers to be “fearsome and menacing beyond comprehension.” But she harks back to her original notion of the divine and vulgar, “The decorative styles and forms I cite simultaneously hold divine and vulgar meaning in the present age, having an irrational quality that contradict each other, which I feel express an important aspect in the contemporary age in which we live.”
 
Aoki is represented by Roentgenwerke AG in Tokyo. Currently, she is working on new pieces for the Predictive Dream series, and a relief that is to be hung on the wall like a painting; its frame is joined into a single piece. A future exhibition at The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, TX starting in March 2012.
 
For more information about Aoki, please visit her website at http://katsuyoaoki.s1.bindsite.jp.

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