Ryo Toyonaga’s recent survey curated by Midori Yamamura and designed by Yumi Kori at the Vilcek Foundation in New York City (March 12-May 15, 2009) summarized nearly twenty years of work in ceramics and other media. For our purposes, we will concentrate on Toyonaga’s evolution as a ceramic sculptor. This is helpful, especially now, since, like many other ceramic artists recently (Frank Boyden, Peter Voulkos, Jim Leedy, Patti Warashina, Michael Lucero, etc.), Toyonaga is switching almost exclusively to bronze and aluminum, cast at the legendary Tallix Foundry in Beacon, New York, near his studio in Garrison, New York, in the Hudson River Valley. It is more important than ever to treat his ceramic work to date as a finite system, even a closed book.
What can we gain from such an approach? Building on over 300 handbuilt, carved, and unglazed stoneware sculptures made between 1987 and 2003, Toyonaga’s subsequent art is inescapably steeped in clay’s process if not its properties. Most of the 49-year-old artist’s statements in interviews and catalogs since his arrival in the US in 1987 play down the significance of working in clay. Be that as it may, if we exercise our imaginative and interpretive powers, wide worlds of meaning can emerge from these mysterious and beautiful objects.
When one thinks only of those Asian clay artist transplants to New York who have had their own cultural profiles—Toshiko Takaezu, Hui Ka Kwong, Ah Leon, and others—Ryo Toyonaga does seem an outsider, an exile from the exiles, the enigma of the exiles, who has resisted pigeonholing within the overlapping contemporary clay and art worlds.
Starting out at Greenwich House Pottery, the venerable New York birthing chamber for talented clay artists, and continuing with stays and stints at the Lively Earth Studio (also in New York City), Art Life Studio in White Plains, New York, and the Clay Art Center in Port Chester, New York (where he also worked as a studio assistant), the Japanese–born artist developed a considerable array of artistic and technical skills.
The opposite of other Japanese transplants who openly explore and praise clay as a material, Toyonaga (who has a degree in psychology from National University of Shinsh), has frequently dismissed predictable observations about clay’s virtues, sounding more like a New York conceptual artist—or like the late Merce Cunningham, a choreographer whom Toyonaga admired. For example, comments like “Material is not very important to me. . . I am not that into spirituality of earth and fire,” arose in a series of interviews with me at his studios in Garrison and in Lower Manhattan. He continued, “I want a practical workable idea of materials.”
“It really doesn’t matter, the material,” Toyonaga explained, adding, “There is no link between choice of materials and [the] meaning of [a] piece. . . I just want to present the piece without any allusion to earth.” At this latter goal, he has failed utterly. Instead, over and over, because of the reduction and oxidation firing methods used and the unglazed stoneware selected, the dirty, muddy, gritty origins of whatever odd being the sculpture ends up resembling are inextricably connected to their material source. So much so that, in perceiving the numerous tentacles, eyes, suckers, and even cephalopod “feet,” the viewer experiences the organism as if it were literally emerging from that source.
This leads to a very short leap into Toyonaga’s parallel imaginary and illusory world, a whacked-out sci-fi universe that has recalled to some critics Japanese anime cartoons and cheesy monster movies of the 1960s. Guest curator Yamamura took this approach in her catalog essay for the Vilcek retrospective. In another catalog essay for one of Toyonaga’s two shows at Charles Cowles Gallery in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, Guggenheim Museum curator Alexandra Munroe noted that the sculptures resemble “hybrid monsters of Japanese TV.” As the artist told her, however, the sculptures are “creatures that are living in the ocean of my subconscience [sic].”
In the same catalog, for the artist’s 2006 Cowles exhibit, critic Edward Leffingwell pays surprisingly close attention to the craft-related studio activities pursued. He noted how “Toyonaga begins each piece in an organic way, . . . like a bee building a hive, cell by cell, or an embryo, something in gestation that develops as a womb,” And described the sculptures as “a singular biomorphic vocabulary of archetypal forms.”
With each work untitled, individual analyses have frequently been stymied by the artist who stressed in my interview, somewhat disconcertingly, “Japanese art is not an inspiration. I have a basic admiration for Japanese art . . . but I was more interested in Western art.” He cites seeing Philip Guston’s later work as an important turning point for his imagery, the fusion of figure and landscape, abstraction and representation.
Textured surface sections replaced glaze or ornament, obliquely alluding to historical Japanese ceramics, as in the clashing, criss-cross patterns of Oribe and Imari wares, despite the artist’s demurrals of such precedents. Gradually, multiple appended, curving forms took on ever distant references to what Leffingwell called “Tantric [or Buddhist] guardians” with “hermaphroditic characteristics . . . and bizarre permutations ofprimary sexual characteristics.” These, in turn, led to dynamic combinations of orifices and tentacles with reptilian skins that seem aftermaths of cross-species battles—or belated post-nuclear explosions.
“Creativity is just living and keep going. Go to the studio every day,” Toyonaga told me. “A routine is important. That’s when I am looking at older work and thinking about newer work. I don’t do much socializing with other artists; I’m more comfortable just being by myself,” Toyonaga concluded, as he reached to pour another cup of tea.
the author Matthew Kangas, a frequent contributor to CM, also writes for Art in America, Sculpture, and Art Ltd.