'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.

Takamori's salt-fired porcelain nudes languishing in come-hither poses or rapturously entwined like clinging vines are evocative even more of Shunga, a notorious subset of Ukiyo-e. Shunga are those artfully erotic woodblock prints showing men and women (and sometimes even fish) with oversize privy parts engaged in passionately contorted sexual positions that could easily inspire envy in seasoned gymnasts.

Despite their anatomically distinctive body parts, Takamori's nudes exude an aura of ambiguity and often androgyny. For example, in "Lovers," male and female figures are so intertwined that identifying their sexes becomes impossible. The artist makes it clear that every human being possesses at least the emotional and spiritual characteristics and proclivities of both genders.

"Takamori crosses back and forth between the sexes," says Joan Prior of Armstrong-Prior, Inc., a printmaking studio that recently collaborated with the artist on 33 prints. "It's really the spirit of the sexes that he's dealing with in his work. In reality, he's a quiet, family-oriented man who adores his wife and children, and that also shows through in the work," she adds.

The wonder of Takamori's work lies not in obvious depictions of sex acts, but in Takamori's ability to depict intimacy in human sexual relationships. Accomplished Valley ceramicist Kurt Weiser, who has known Akio Takamori for more than 20 years, is in a good position to explain Takamori's holistic view of sexual passion. "Akio is a special kind of guy, an especially talented one and very humble. Ceramics can be a conformist art form, following certain rules and traditions. Akio takes ceramic traditions and adds to them--he makes the work more than clay. His work is not about clay or fire; it's about life and people.

"And no matter how polarized people are about sexual issues, Akio manages to waltz through it with an innocent grin," says Weiser. "He's like a third grader who's just discovered how it all works."

In the '80s, Weiser, as director of the Archie Bray Foundation, a privately funded group ceramics studio in Helena, Montana, worked with Takamori for four years. "I remember an occasion when a group of very strait-laced state legislators' wives had Akio speak to them about his phallus sculptures," Weiser recalls. "I thought he was crazy to choose that subject, but they loved it. It still amazes me.

"When we worked together, we would often talk about living out our fantasies in our work. Akio Takamori's work is straightforward and the way he approaches his subject matter is straightforward. It's not aggressive or predatory. But," adds Weiser, "he's no rice farmer."

"Master's Touch: Akio Takamori" continues through Sunday, May 5, at Tempe Arts Center at Tempe Beach Park, First Street and Mill.

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