JONAS WOOD PAINTS heartfelt still lifes and his wife Shio Kusaka makes disarmingly simple ceramic pots, both a far cry from the shiny, conceptual work championed by the art market today. Yet the Los Angeles-based couple recently managed to snag a major show at Gagosian Gallery in Hong Kong, something of an achievement considering it generally favours deceased legends and celebrity artists (think Giacometti and Jeff Koons).
As art insiders will tell you, however, the emerging duo have become something of an “it couple” in the American art world, with Kusaka's work appearing at Whitney Biennale and Wood exhibiting in museums across the country. “People have been asking us for 10 years since we started showing, when are you guys going do an exhibition together?” says Wood. “So it's anticipated.”
For their debut in Hong Kong, Wood has created a series of colourful canvases filled with pots that playfully respond to his wife's ceramics. Walking through the show, there's a sense of synergy, fun and dialogue in the works that the couple themselves echo. Wood often finishes Kusaka's sentences; they serve as each other's sounding boards and constantly compliment each other. Endearingly, they also involve their children in their practice – one of the drawings on the wall is signed by their four-year-old daughter Momo and one of Kusaka's pots adorned with dinosaur handles and imagery was also inspired by the toddler.
The couple met 15 years ago while attending Seattle's University of Washington. Kusaka, a student from Japan, was doing her undergraduate degree in pottery and Wood was in graduate school pursuing painting. “We met at the art library because I was working there. It's super cute, I have to say,” she says, laughing. “When I started university, I didn't know anything [about art]. I knew I wasn't going to go the art library regularly so I said, ‘OK, let's get a job there to make me stay in the building and learn.'”
Wood had his studio in the same building. “I got an excessive amount of books from the library so that I could see Shio,” he recalls grinning. “But I was also going there for the same reason as her. I was surrounded by art while growing up but I never studied it full time. My grandfather collected Bacon, Lichtenstein and Calder but I didn't realise who they were. When I started grad school I thought, ‘Woah.'”
Similarly, Kusaka was exposed to pottery at a young age. She grew up watching her grandmother conduct traditional tea ceremonies while her grandfather taught calligraphy. “In a tea ceremony there is this moment where you have to pick up a wooden spoon and really look at it and appreciate it. As a five-year-old kid it doesn't make sense but I later learned how to stop and appreciate those little details of forms.”
At school, she was always curious about ceramics. “I was fascinated by how magical it is to make something out of a clay ball, so I picked up a class and that was the beginning.” A sense of childlike wonder continues to permeate her work today. Her minimalist pots are clearly handmade with deliberate imperfections. She paints on wobbly lines and grids that deliberately morph as they wrap around the curved form.
After the couple got married in 2002 and began sharing a studio, her pots gradually crept into his paintings, albeit in flatter, more vivid incarnations. “Since I'm coming out of a modern painting perspective of Impressionism up to Picasso and Braque, they all painted still-life, so I thought, ‘This is what I've got to do to get better as a painter.' So naturally I just started using the things that were around me, like her pots,” he explains.
Kusaka meanwhile, says. “I was doing my own thing. I wasn't that interested in having images on the pots.” It was only later she began to look at the imagery in his paintings and the way in which he reinterpreted her work and realised those were forms that attracted her: “I look at his painting and think, ‘Oh, I would make that,' and it just comes back to me and I make my pots.”
Previously, Kusaka made small bulbous pots in black or white. Woods' influence is clear in this show as she has ventured into brighter patinas from deep blue to striking orange, and blown her pots up to a larger, more monumental scale for the first time. Meanwhile, Wood has delved deeper into the idea of incorporating pots into his work, using them as windows of sorts leading the viewer into vivid landscapes. “But the narrative isn't as set up as one might think,” muses Wood. “It's just sort of like our life working together, it's nature taking its course – things are growing like plants.”
While their work feeds off each other's, the couple also continue to draw from a broad range of inspiration. “We both have an interesting practice in that we're always working with our influences and wearing them on our sleeve, we're not hiding them,” says Wood, who has also long been fascinated with David Hockney and Henri Matisse.
His work Red Studio, for instance, features an interior scene of a room strewn with frames and vibrant canvases all painted on a large flat red pot. The image is culled from Matisse's painting of the same title. He also takes inspiration from Greek vessels as well as other forms he encounters in daily life. Meanwhile, Kusaka's preoccupation with Neolithic Japanese pottery is apparent in a number of her pieces, which possess an ancient quality.
Asked if living and working together has ever been too much for them, they admit when they first tried to share a studio it was a lot harder. “Just being together all the time didn't really help,” says Kusaka. “Now it's almost like in a funny way, if we didn't share a studio, we'd hardly spend any time together because we'd be two people who worked these huge jobs and then spent little time at home,” says Wood.
For all their interconnectedness, the painter and the potter insist that they maintain separate practices and that their collaboration is a spontaneous occurrence. “It's not like a boardroom or anything calculated,” says Wood. “We've just always been biggest fans or supporters of what the other person's doing.” What have been their best shows? Both explain in unison that every exhibition they do is exciting: “We're like little infant baby artists just getting started.”