KEN MATSUMOTO – “A Reason for Being”
By Erin Goodwin-Guerrero

What is a reason for being? Perhaps, it is simply to appreciate the nature or history of a material through realization of form. Ken Matsumoto explores this question and others he may only begin to articulate in his current exhibition at the Triton Museum in Santa Clara.

In explaining his vessels made of bricks and mortar Ken Matsumoto tells the story of Dr Ishikawa’s house to illustrate this point. “Dr. Ishikawa had bequeathed his home (located 50 yards down the street from my studio/gallery) to the Japanese American Museum of San Jose‚Ķ the home was used as the museum for several years until recently when it was razed to make way for the construction of a structure more suited to the mission of the JAM. ‚Ķmy friend Jimi Yamaichi, harvested from the destruction, stacks of red clay bricks, thinking that they would be of use. ‚ĶJimi agreed to let me use some of them.” Honoring the memory of Dr. Ishikawa through the metaphor of a vessel constructed from bricks and mortar from his own house is the vessel’s reason for being, however it is only the beginning of Matsumoto’s exploration.


Ken Matsumoto’s Bricks and Mortar

Matsumoto’s vessel form, which is repeated many times, large and small, throughout the exhibition, is the distillation of many years of working with earthy materials such as clay, metals and particularly stone. There is a shift in this work from his earlier emphasis on material – stone – with its natural characteristics, strength, diginity and resistance to conforming to human direction. Beginning with the first vessel in memory of Dr. Ishikawa, Matsumoto brings the vessel form into prominence.

It is not a functional vessel, but ceremonial. It is weighty at the bottom with only slightly arcing sides reaching out and up at the angle of a Y. Matsumoto reaches his arms upward to show the gesture he believes to be a part of it. The interior of the vessel is a shallow recess in the top that is equally precisely excavated and polished. It makes an offering like a pair of cupped hands. Its simple geometry is elegant and amply honors the natural material of the earth on which it sits and to which it feels connected. Ken Matsumoto likes the process of discovery within his materials. Extracting a vessel form from a block of bricks and mortar yields unexpected loops and arcs that play off of the predictable horizontals, verticals and triangles.


Steel Drawing in conversation with Matsumoto’s solid vessels

Elsewhere in the exhibition, a linear sculptural form with a square cross-section is cut from quarter-inch steel plate and painted with acrylic. It has an intellectual dialogue with the vessels of brick and mortar. Steel Drawing has a strong central vertical movement, an upward arcing line that is like the sides if his vessels and these are balanced by horizontal extensions and arcs in the shape of Cs. Its color sequence of black and gray and brick red at varying intervals mimics that of the brick and mortar vessels.

A stunning piece in the exhibition is the vessel form extracted from a giant chunk of greenish gold Mexican onyx. The jewel like onyx has explosive holes within it, like geode interiors – organic and unpredictable. Cross sections of the onyx then reveal satin surfaces, voids and crusty undulating edges. The geometry of Matsumoto’s vessel, superimposed onto and into the onyx creates a delicate balance of precision and uncontrolled natural fury. This work may be the closest to Matsumoto’s earlier work in terms of exalting certain massive and powerful qualities in stone and contrasting them against the fine touch of his hand.


Matsumoto’s Ei Yi Yi out of Mexican Onyx

Again, the form in onyx appears to be having a conversation with another piece that is more controlled in that the materials seem to be much more mitigated by human touch. Islands in the Stream is a long horizontal wall relief that supports a frosted glass as its front layer. Irregularly placed organic holes cut through it seem to reflect the shapes of the cross-sections of the voids in the onyx. Through these openings, a few inches behind the glass, one views a wrinkled, undulating copper surface that is discolored and altered by chemistry. We enter the voids and find unpredictable textures and disorder.


Matsumoto’s Islands in the Stream: steel copper and frosted glass

Embedding big irregular chunks of volcanic cinder in cement yields a rhythmic interplay of gray and deep rusty red contrasts in one vessel, and Matsumoto’s surprise is an edge where the cinder is insufficient to complete the outer lip of his vessel form. Of course, he allows it to stand. It is in situations like these, where voids, natural interruptions and surprise elements of his materials render the man-made form incomplete, that Matsumoto’s designs become clearly conceptual.


Chalice, cut into glass, by Ken matsumoto

Not every material that Matsumoto explores is found feely in nature. Two of the most purely magical pieces in the show are cubes made of stacks of window glass. Through a water etching process Matsumoto’s signature vessel form is cut out of the center. It is small and floats in the center of a blue green sea of glass. It changes position or appears momentarily as two or three vessels, and then again one, as the viewer moves around the piece.


Ken Matsumoto’s Prone

Matsumoto’s art continues to showcase an interplay of organic and inorganic, human design and intractable nature. One might think of determined, unrestrained, growing plant life and man-made order imposed on it in a Japanese garden, or the restrained aesthetic of human hands arranging and balancing plant and mineral materials in Ikebana. Further, there is the concept of an opening for spirit movement in Japanese joinery, or allowing an interior void (that of the Buddha) in everything from the form of a vessel to a house, and throughout Matsumoto’s constructions. If the observer notes these very Japanese traditional ways of respectful human interaction with natural materials, Matsumoto looks perplexed and shakes his head. “Perhaps we receive some things from a collective unconscious. I was raised a Catholic. As a child, I never spent weekends or evenings in Buddhist school.” Go figure!

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