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Sunday, Feb. 25, 2001

Funakoshi: Two heads are better than one

What distinguishes an artist from a craftsman? An obvious difference is the pricing of their work. Whereas craft products can sometimes be expensive, this usually reflects the time and trouble taken to make the piece. Art prices, however, are arranged on an exponential scale starting at almost nothing for unproven artists, but quickly accelerating skyward for those lucky enough to escape the market's gravity.

"Memory Being Supported Once," by Katsura Funakoshi

One such artist now in free float is Katsura Funakoshi, who makes highly prized figurative sculptures of legless mannequins in painted camphor wood.

Visiting his atelier, a former barber shop in Setagaya-ku, I have the chance to compare older examples of his work with the most recent examples currently on display at the small Nishimura Gallery in Ginza.

For most of us, wood sculpture immediately conjures up notions of cigar-store Indians, heavily-painted Hindu idols, or Christian icons. Perhaps this is why the figure of a classically beautiful young woman with the suggestive title "Gate of Wings" looks like an angel to me.

But Funakoshi tells me that the title came from the model. "She was very interested in wings and mon, Japanese gates," he says, in excellent English that was honed during a one-year stay in London in the 1980s.

Religious figures are products of the craftsman's art. Indeed, this is how Funakoshi got started carving wood figures -- a church asked him to make a sculpture of the Madonna and Christ Child. So, perhaps it is just as well that "Gate of Wings" is not an angel.

For an artist like Funakoshi, working in wood, the constant danger is that he will be regarded as a mere craftsman. I suggest to him that the thing that separates the artist from the craftsman is originality and the ability to change.

"Right," he replies, "We can see that some painters and sculptors are closer to craftsmen, and some craftsmen are very close, or are really, artists. Anyway, I have to change because I am changing everyday. I want to keep finding new things and to make it in my sculpture."

Compared to the pieces he made several years ago, the most general difference is the new freedom he shows in treating the body.

"You and Your Quavery Lips," a figure with arms intriguingly reaching for the crotch, shows tensed musculature under a polo-necked sweater, while the body of "Gate of Wings" represents a mountain. "Blue Ruin," a figure with a beautifully pained expression, actually has architectural features built into its body in the supports at the back.

The two most radical innovations at this exhibition, however, show mixed results. One, "Memory Being Supported Once," is his first two-headed sculpture.

A powerful evocation of the spirit of human comradeship, it was inspired by a rugby game he saw more than 20 years ago in which his favorite Meiji University player suffered concussion.

"After the game one of his teammates supported him walking back to the locker room. Being supported -- that was such a beautiful scene, I felt at that time."

The other, a squatting figure of a dancer titled "Dancing as a Pupa -- Homage to the Dancer," is a change from his usual forms, but much less satisfactory.

When I first encountered a Funakoshi sculpture at the office of a friend several years ago, my initial response was to cuddle it. Although it may well be the beginning of an interesting road, "Dancing as a Pupa" confounds this basic urge to relate to his work.

Perhaps this is why it is the last to find a buyer.

Craftsman or artist? That is the question still hanging over the finely crafted, slowly evolving art of Katsura Funakoshi. But why shouldn't he be both? As "Memory Being Supported Once" so strongly suggests, two heads are often better than one.

"New Works by Katsura Funakoshi," until March 3 at the Nishimura Gallery, Nishi-Ginza Bldg. B1F, 4-3-13 Ginza; tel: (03) 3567-3906. Open 10:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m. Closed Sunday, Monday and holidays. Admission free.

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