David Kuraoka: Making a Life Out of Clay by Maria Porges
Over the last four decades, David Kuraoka’s extraordinary level of dedication and productivity has allowed him to develop several different bodies of accomplished work. The most important of these include the thrown and altered pit-fired forms for which he is best known; vessel-based bronze sculpture; elegant wheel-thrown porcelains glazed with celadon, and wall-mounted, handmade tiles, grouped in compositions of varying sizes.
After many years of experimentation with pit firing, Kuraoka has mastered this most basic—yet unpredictable–of techniques. He has learned how to position pots on the floor of the pit to achieve certain effects with a variety of combustible materials, creating distinctive smoky, swirling marks on his soft, elemental forms. These sculptural pots evoke associations with ancient pre-civilizations. At the same time, they look utterly modern in their deceptive simplicity and seeming spontaneity, recalling the gestures of early Abstract Expressionism. These pieces, however, involve exacting labor, including burnishing each one by hand with a pebble to create a satiny surface that seems to both reflect and absorb light.
Some years ago, Kuraoka became interested in the possibilities offered by another kind of trial by fire: casting in bronze. Though the process is quite different, he has achieved results that are often uncannily similar to his pit-fired work. A mold is taken from one of his thrown, altered clay forms. After bronze is cast into this mold, Kuraoka employs patinas to develop its surface into a rich palette of earthy colors. The reflective nature of the metal creates subtle effects unique to these pieces, some of which are almost monumental in scale.
The genesis of Kuraoka’s celadon vessels was due in part to his responsibilities in the SFSU ceramics department. Although he had made an extended trip to Korea in the late eighties (a commission he was completing was being fabricated there) he remembers not being that interested in Korea’s famous celadon wares. Soon afterwards, problems with the glazes at school led to Kuraoka taking on the responsibility of reformulating them. Once he had begun working on this task, he became fascinated by the forms traditionally created for the cool, translucent greens and blues for which celadon is so celebrated. His own interpretations allude to that past, but are also clearly related to the swelling shapes he uses for some of his pit-fired work.
Kuraoka has been experimenting with tiles since the 80’s. Drawn to the possibilities that these modular forms offer in terms of varied compositions, he has made hundreds—if not thousands—of square and rectangular slabs, arranging and re-arranging them in different ways. In Fremont (2008), 24 rectangles are configured together into four rows of six. Each of the tiles is a variation of loosely geometric mark-making in a warm palette of yellow and tan, enlivened with coppery pinks and greens. Bold lines of smoky black and brown serve as a kind of counterpoint. The difference and sameness of these 24 separate compositions create a lively tension that reaches across the gaps that separate each one from its neighbor.
More recently, he has been experimenting with the bright colors offered by commercial glazes, using squirt bottles and brushes to work up patterns that combine circles, crosses and squares in bold hues.