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Alumnus Kenzi Shiokava Hailed as Breakout Star of Hammer Museum Biennial

The Hammer biennial's breakout star? A 78-year-old retired gardener from Compton who once worked for Marlon Brando
Carolina A. Miranda

When artist Kenzi Shiokava ('74 MFA) received a telephone call from a pair of curators organizing this year’s “Made in L.A.” biennial at the Hammer Museum, he says he had little clue of the meteoric effect it would have on his life. 

“I’d never seen ‘Made in L.A.,’” says the 78-year-old sculptor. “I’ve always been off the art establishment.”

But as he does with anyone who is interested in seeing his work, he invited the curators — Hamza Walker and Aram Moshayedi — to his studio so that they could have a look at his totemic wood sculptures, junk-art assemblages and curiosity boxes featuring orderly, patterned displays of old toys, plastic fruit and discarded religious ephemera.

Shiokava says he was buoyed by the visit but subdued in his expectations. “Lots of shows come and go,” he says, as he surveys a row of partially carved tree limbs lining a wall of his studio.

But the biennial has been quite a different experience. “I didn’t know it’d be like this,” he says with a resplendent grin. “The response has been amazing.”

Shiokava, who has quietly whittled tree trunks and old telephone poles into mystical shapes in an old Compton body shop for several decades, made his living as a gardener for much of his life — including, at one point, for Marlon Brando. And yet he’s one of the breakout artists of the Hammer’s buzzy biennial, which opened to a warm critical embrace late last month.

Shiokava has been profiled on public radio and had a major Brazilian daily come calling for an interview (he was born in Brazil).  W Magazine referred to him as one of the show’s stars.  And a stream of collectors have been making the pilgrimage to a strip of light industrial spaces on West El Segundo Boulevard to see the tidy arrangements of collages, carvings and assemblages that make the artist’s workspace feel like an all-consuming environmental installation.

Walker, the biennial’s guest co-curator (he is an associate curator at the Renaissance Society in Chicago), says he stumbled into Shiokava’s work online while researching another artist. Calls to an art space in Reno, where the artist had exhibited  in 2008, along with another to Cause Gallery, in L.A.’s Chinatown, which held a small number of his pieces, turned up his contact information.

The curator says that from the moment he stepped into Shiokava’s studio, early in 2015, he was sure that this was an artist he wanted to include in the show. 

“It was pretty immediate,” he says. “We were both speechless within 10 paces of the entrance. There were all of these totems right up front and we were like, woooowwww.”

For the exhibition, Walker says that he and Moshayedi, who is a curator for the Hammer, were looking to show a limited number of artists (roughly two dozen) — but to represent each of them with an extensive number of pieces.

“The idea was to feature a substantial project or body of work,” he explains. “When we saw Kenzi, we thought, ‘This confirms what we want to do.’” The biennial currently has 66 works by the sculptor on view.

Shiokava, who is exceedingly gracious and warm  — he greets even first-time visitors to his studio with a hug — and possesses a bubbling energy that belies his age, couldn’t be more pleased.

“What’s always kept me going is people coming to my studio and enjoying the work,” he says in his deeply accented English. “But now I know my work will have a legacy. My work will live.”


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Image: Sculptor Kenzi Shiokava sits before works in progress in his Compton studio. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)