During last year’s “Made in LA” Biennial at the Hammer Museum, Kelly Akashi’s sculptures were given a prime spot in the museum’s central courtyard; yet they were easy to miss if you didn’t pay attention, suspended by ropes from the second floor walkway. Using the enlarged form of a desiccated onion, one work, made of rubber, suggested some sort of droopy body cavity, perhaps genitals, or a split-open stomach or eyeball; another, suspended horizontally, a sort of pouch or seedpod. Also hanging from the ropes as a counterbalance were the cast bronze hands of the artist. The result was at once unsettling and oddly elegiac, a curious monument to something elusive, organic and ephemeral, that was seemingly caught in the process of decay.
It is just those sort of uneasy tensions—between abstraction and bodily allegory, between fragility and permanence, between documentation and consecration—that make Akashi’s work so mysterious, and intriguing. In her recent show at Ghebaly Gallery in downtown LA, Akashi offered a spectrum of diverse forms and materials, all staking out similar willfully indeterminate terrain: an homage to their own thingness. At the center of the main room were several multi-leveled wooden tables, bedecked with bulbous glass orbs of various colors and a menagerie of twisty, looping wax candles, hanging like sausages, or splayed out like innards, or wrapped around each other like a nest of ouroboros snakes. Laid out on the base below one table was a wreath of snaky candles, a possible holiday decoration from a fleshy medusa; hanging from one wall was a similar candle wreath made of cast bronze. Other individual twisty candles adorned the walls; as did some spare brick pedestals for still more candles. A plaster bed board dabbed with wads of chewing gum and several delicate, spindly cast bronze weeds added to the sculptural constellation, while a set of eerie photograms, of objects displayed elsewhere in the exhibition, suggested images of fossilized microscopic organisms. A sort of circular mobile or dreamcatcher, dangling cast bronze fingers, and another set of cast bronze hands, hanging off the entrance wall on ropes, completed the diverse but meticulous array.
Wandering among her works conjures a range of associations: from the self-casting exercises of Bruce Nauman, to the funereal body parts/candles of Robert Gober, from the abstracted genital iconography of Hannah Wilke to the supple corporal geometries of Eva Hesse. There is a certain understated triumph in these works, from their maker’s skill at bringing them into being, perhaps even a joyfulness at their seductively diverse materiality, but also a quiet grief, of preserving time and marking loss. Gathered together, her display exudes the reverence of a reliquary.
“All the works in my show at Ghebaly (titled ‘Being as a Thing’) stem from an experience one can have when making an object—when their consciousness enters the object, or as the title reflects how a thing can carry or communicate ‘beingness’,” Akashi explains. “This exhibition was an opportunity to confront my position as a maker of hand-crafted objects, a way for me to think of how my sense of responsibility to material or nature results in a specific kind of object, an aesthetic wedded to choices and material insight.”
Born in LA, Akashi attended Otis as an undergrad, then went to art school in Germany from 2009-2010, before returning to the graduate program at USC, where she got her MFA in 2014. Today she lives and works in Inglewood, just a mile from where her mother grew up. Her expansive range of materials and techniques takes her all across the city: “I have cast bronze all over town at this point: in Burbank, Vernon, Buena Park, and El Monte. I used to work solely with a foundry in City Terrace…” She likewise blows glass at several disparate venues, including a private studio in Pasadena and a place in West Adams. She creates most of her candles and wax casts at her live/work space, “everything that does not need specialized equipment.” Indeed, the original weeds that she used in her show at Ghebaly grew in her backyard. The care she takes with even the most modest works attests the significance with which she imbues them: the leaves were carefully traced using copper foil; while the stems were cast at her foundry in a version of the “lost wax process,” in which the original object is burned out and only the imprint remains.
“The materials I use are chosen for their susceptibility to change or their resistance to change,” she explains. “When I started working with wax it was a useful way for me to talk about the intangible fleeting quality of life and of experiences… Loss is really important to communicate in an object. I think all objects carry their eventual loss with them in life…” she adds. “Handling loss is a key component of glass blowing—the object gets carefully made and poor movement or timing can result in total loss of the object before it can be annealed and ‘brought to life’… In this way, the glass objects in my show at Ghebaly with the glass interior strings are a register of their making, impressions from the environment they were conceived in, like fingerprints forming from conditions and movement in the womb.”
The cast hands, too, are a way of preserving the ephemeral: each iteration of her casting her own hands marks a different moment in time, a concretized relic of the artist’s physical existence and activities as a maker. In chronicling her own, very gradual process of aging, they invest the work with a sense of time’s passage and also mark the very real presence of the artist in her works—putting herself into her materials both in spirit, and in fact.
“Kelly Akashi: Being as a Thing” was on display at Ghebaly Gallery in Los Angeles.
November 12 – December 23, 2016. ghebaly.com
The artist installing “Being as a Thing” at Ghebaly Gallery, Los Angeles
Photo: Marten Elder, Courtesy: Ghebaly Gallery