'The sign posted on the door of Tempe Arts Center warns that the center's current ceramics exhibit, "Master's Touch: Akio Takamori," contains images of adult themes. What it doesn't tell you, however, is that the work within is a poetic paean to the myth and magic that have always surrounded the human form.

"Master's Touch" showcases ceramic vessels made by Akio Takamori, who was born and raised in a small industrial town on Kyushu, Japan's southernmost island. Although he moved to the United States in 1974, Takamori continues to draw heavily upon Japanese art, mythology, religion and folk traditions to create his lush, three-dimensional vases, which unabashedly sport painted-on penises and pubic patches alongside Buddhas and bodhisattvas. It's all a part of the artist's search to understand human relationships and sexuality.

Takamori has come a long way from cranking out 250 identical tea bowls a day as an apprentice at a traditional Japanese domestic pottery factory in Koshiwara, Japan. Under the tutelage of legendary American ceramicist Ken Ferguson at the Kansas City Art Institute, Takamori early on stepped beyond the strictures of Japanese ceramic traditions, which mostly concentrate on producing stock forms with little emphasis on individuality. Takamori has written that he lacked self-confidence at first and didn't know where to begin to do his own work instead of someone else's. Ultimately, he connected with themes from his own childhood.

Takamori's father, a dermatologist as well as a lover of the arts, treated prostitutes at his clinic in the red-light district of his hometown. "It was always fascinating to watch the bodies of those coming in and out of that place," Takamori has said. He also remembers sneaking peaks at the erotic woodblock illustrations of Shiko Munakata in his father's library.

Drawing on those memories and uniquely Japanese cultural traditions, Takamori has hand-sculpted a series of porcelain pieces that unselfconsciously celebrates sexual passion and the psychic forces that motivate it. For him, physicality, a natural part of life, becomes the flip side of spirituality and a potential path to it.

"Akio is very interested in male/female relationships," says Patty Haberman, exhibition and education coordinator for Tempe Arts Center. "As to the explicit body parts, he says that we all have breasts and hair under our arms. But he stresses that there are ritual and holiness attached to the human figure."

Takamori starts a vessel by making line drawings of his images on paper, then traces them onto three slabs of clay. From there, he forms the clay slabs into the vessel's back, front and bottom, pushing and pulling to create volume where desired. When dry enough, the pieces are joined, drawn on, scratched into, painted with underglaze and fired at a high temperature in a kiln to which rock salt is added. The rock salt vaporizes and reacts with the glaze, creating the soft sheen characteristic of Takamori's work. The vessels go into the kiln a minimum of three times, with the artist adding or intensifying areas of understated earth colors before each firing.

Takamori has taken sexual imagery out of the prurient category; in fact, his ceramic vessels/sculpture have popped up at such hallowed halls of art as London's Victoria and Albert Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art and New York's American Craft Museum. Takamori's most adept at playfully combining several classic Japanese art forms and filtering them through a contemporary Western, almost Picassoesque, aesthetic.

Stylistically, the clay pieces recall the vigorous calligraphic quality of Otsu-e, folk paintings made by farmers and simple country artisans for mass consumption. Originally, those paintings used deities popular in folk versions of Buddhism for subject matter. Takamori applies the same fresh vision and spontaneous brushwork to his clay imagery, occasionally depicting Japanese folk deities, such as Kwannon, the perennially popular Japanese version of the Buddhist goddess of mercy.

Her holy presence is evident on the front side of "Appearance of Kwannon to a Woman," in which the haloed goddess is lovingly cradled by two nude females; on the back side, two females tenderly cradle each other. In a companion piece, "Appearance of Kwannon to a Man," the small, gleaming goddess floats above an enraptured male clutching his penis; on the back, the male's tumescence deflates as the goddess looms large and magnificent against a backdrop of stormy rain clouds. And in "Hare and Rider," a jovial, naked Buddha in elbow and knee pads straddles a rabbit that looks more like a cat, whom the god controls by holding onto its overdeveloped bunny ears.

Not surprisingly, Takamori's work also suggests elements of Ukiyo-e, literally "images of the floating world," popular woodblock prints produced from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Long a part of Japanese culture, "the floating world" is a euphemism for the officially sanctioned pleasure and entertainment districts that sprang up during the Tokugawa shogunate in Edo (now Tokyo); these districts lasted for centuries as an accepted part of the Japanese sociosexual landscape. That is, until Commodore Matthew Perry put into Edo Bay in 1853 and imported prudish Victorian mores that had no tolerance for the art of Edo's land-based floating world.

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