February 26, 2008

Kai-awase Surprise on Native Clams

My search for non-western sources of mosaic art began with an examination of Pre-Columbian masks and artifacts but my curiosity led me to other interesting objects as well. The bright colors and subtle designs of Native American inlay jewelry captivated my interest. There was a long tradition in this art form of decorating the convex side of clam shells to make pendants for necklaces or art objects. Although most museum examples are modern, there appears to be a stylistic relationship with many of the Pre-Columbian pieces I've seen.
I happened to have some spare clam shells in my studio of a fairly substantial size so I decided to make a simple embellishment on them. I soon found that the smallness of the object required thin materials to wrap around the curved surface as thicker glass would create unpleasant-looking breaks from piece to piece. So after applying the ceramic head and hands pictured above I covered the surface with fragments of a pen shell found on Edisto beach. The second, smaller shell was decorated with mother-of-pearl, copper and adventurine.
If one looks very closely at the upraised hands on either side of the face with the pearly blue eyes, you can see very tiny symbols in green. They are ancient zhuan style Chinese characters for the sun and the moon. The sun and the moon together mean "enlightenment."
A note here about using language and symbols in art...although many artists use text in art, I'm of the opinion (probably not shared by many and even running counter to my western art training) that one should be able to read the language used. I believe this because meaning not only enriches the art work but avoids the possibility of using a text that may be saying something entirely inappropriate. I've often seen, for instance, Chinese characters in an art work affixed upside-down or right-side up but saying something ridiculous. I recently saw a website advertising Chinese art scrolls that had chinese characters on their home page that were not only upside-down but were a cropped piece of Chinese communist propaganda from the seventies. But enough of my bugbears and on to my explanation for the objects at hand.
Even though most people would not be turning these shells over, it seemed a pity to leave the underside undressed. An idea for decorating the underside came not from Native America but from 18th century Japan. Imperial Japan of that era had a memory game using clam shells with the underside painted with elaborate decorative motifs. The shells were placed face-down on a playing surface while the "partner" shells which were painted with matching designs were selected one at a time from a container. The object, of course was to find the mate by turning over the clam shells one at a time. The Kai-awase shells, as they were known, were painted in bright colors and elaborate designs on gold leaf.
I decided to try something similar to Kai-awase shells by gessoing the interior of the clam shell and sealing it with amber shellac. I gilded the rim of the shell and rendered my surprise paintings inside the gold border. The dancing man is a dancer from India performing a "Tiger" dance. The nude female figure with the red stilleto shoes is imaginary. They are not nearly as exquiste as the true Kai-awase shells yet they were fun to try...and there is no Japanese language here because it is not a language that I know!

No comments: