Carol Kumata: Pandora’s Box

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This article was originally posted on Userblogs on 4/18/2017.
By Michael DunasMore from this author

"How to Wrap Five Eggs" was a dilemma posed by a cult book of Japanese packaging design in the mid-1960s. The answer…dutifully, appropriately, because they demand it. Carol Kumata's Wrappings, her early postgraduate pieces of 1979-80, seemed to be answers to this delicate and deceptively modest challenge.

At the time, the outer covering dominated her work. It appeared to be as important or esthetically significant as what was inside. In these "bundles" of fibrous elements (or metal fabricated to suggest fiber), the wrapping material somehow melded with the image of the thing wrapped. As a viewer, I found myself torn between trying to solve the puzzle of the pieces identity and just enjoying its material reveries. In the end, the "heart of the matter" remained elusive, leaving the outer wrapping/package as all I could identify and maybe all I could really ever know.

In these early pieces, Carol Kumata seemed concerned with the way art is presented, and, consequently, how it is perceived by the viewer. With the Wrappings series, she employed the analogy of packaging as a strategy for controlling the reception of her artwork once it leaves her purview.

Carol Kumata's equation of artistic communication with commercial persuasion must be approached cautiously. On one hand, the package could be misconstrued as a façade, hiding and thus protecting the integrity of the artwork's contents, a posture that might be read as cynical of the audience's ability to grasp a deeper meaning. On the other hand, the package might be properly apprehended as a reaching out to the public, the artwork's message being read as part of the conventional (conforming to accepted standards of conduct and taste) language of art.

Carol Kumata - Duet
Duet, steel, brass, 80 x 45 x 27″, 1987

The latter is reinforced to some degree by the positive value of Japanese esthetics that Carol Kumata adopts in the Wrappings pieces. In the art of Japanese packaging, the object wrapped is taken, almost poetically, to be a precious mystery, like the egg, a symbol of life and rejuvenation. The role of the maker is taken to be one of celebration that respects the nature and spirit of the object in the package. With the goal being the communication of nature's essence, the artist acts as interpreter, translating metaphysical values into codes and patterns that are edifying to the audience, packaging the unknown in terms of a common expressive language, like a material veneer clothing a sacred text.

Janet Koplos writing on Carol Kumata (Metalsmith, Spring, 1982) lists the following characteristics of her work: "Box, layered, mixed media, rich and somber, nonprecious materials, formal, ceremonial, closed and enclosed." I would underscore ceremonial as the dominant feature of Kumata's early work, since there is a sense that these objects imply a ritual, a set of circumstances in life's patterns, potentially operative in some kind of social or communal environment. Attention is not focused on the internal struggles of the artist but rather on a broader struggle with objects that reverberate in the cultures collective memory.

Carol Kumata's position, however, seems to have changed rapidly. As early as 1981, the action shifts towards the interior of her pieces and away from the surface. Initiated in her Trappings series (1980) and continuing through Introverted Box (1981), Trapped in the Golden Triangle (1981), and Locked River (1982), Carol Kumata dispenses with the metaphysical notion of an ethereal spirit, of something mysterious that occupies an artwork, and focuses on the artist's will as the generator, or instigator, of form. In what appears to be a confessional tone she shares with the audience her realization that the artist's psyche is the only authentic substance that is entrapped within her artwork.

Aura, copper, bronze, 15 x 17 x 22″, 1987

The signs of change are first apparent in the physical compositions. Gone are the obsessive Oriental wrappings and the allusion to ceremonial, primordial, shamanistic objects. What remain are prosaic boxes that reference a litany of traditional Western metalsmithing packages — safes, coffers, reliquaries, treasure chess and the like. The contents, however, are far from predictable and can only be described in surreal terms as sensual and tactile. What has changed is that the subject of her work is moving deeper within the confines of her private space, within her psychic "box." Concurrently, the relationship between the package and its contents becomes less ambiguous than incompatible. These pieces demand our associative response to Kumata's ego, seething within an enclosure of artificial definitions.

Carol Kumata's boxes can be considered equivalent to holloware or pottery vessels in their use of inside/outside metaphors of psychological containment. Comparing the process of making holloware or throwing a pot with one of Carol Kumata's boxes helps to illustrate this analogy. In most cases, the thrown pot or raised vessel reflects the interior space in the markings of the surface, describing the inner force of the volume, or, in other words, the spirit that pushes out and forces the vessel to grow. This approach to building form is conceptually transparent, naturalistic, with information about the inner nature of the work appearing on the skin. It derives from a belief in the organic force (elan vital) intrinsic to artmaking.

However, Carol Kumata does not want her containers to seem to grow naturally. Her rigid, rectilinear box format enforces the feeling of prisonlike walls, vessels not of jubilant life but of melancholic repression. She deliberately throws into doubt the dependency an artist feels for an organic composition, the harmonious growth of form. The need to enclose to frame, to rigidify, in Carol Kumata's view, takes precedence over the easy spontaneity and spiritual energy. While reliance on the elan vital has traditionally made art accessible it can also inhibit the artist's progressive self-understanding because it is too strongly tied to a certain esthetic ideal. In shedding this encumbrance, Carol Kumata offers the box as a straw dog. With it, she dramatizes the struggles with liberation/repression, aggression/passivity, extroversion/introversion that are symptoms of the artist's self trying to find room in the public persona of the artwork's package.

Locked River (side view), mixed media, 5 x 5½ x 7″, 1982

The metaphor of the box itself references a mythical tradition of repression. The familiar myth of Pandora - that first lady of mischief who opens the forbidden box releasing every evil of the flesh - comes immediately to mind. However, in her work, Carol Kumata reverses the implications of this symbol to that of a creative force that is bounded, possessed and centered. She formulates this difference as internal rather than outwardly directed, away from any suggestion of a polemic that might overshadow a unique, personal, feminine expression. Emblematic of this self-centered femininity, Carol Kumata's pieces are involved with a range of issues (essentialist, cultural, linguistic, Freudian) that are meant to suggest an appreciation of women's work rather than dwelling on women as the subject of oppression. In this light, her use of the box keeps at a distance any tendency to view women as "subjects" of metalsmithing, defined by body adornment and domestic wares, allowing a search for self-image to take its own course.

It is easy to see how an elementary consideration of building enclosures could encourage rumination over much larger issues. Watching Carol Kumata work through these stages over the last few years makes one sensitive to the psychological balance implied by the relationship between inside and outside. At first, she dealt with the coexistence of both in her packages, married in composites like the Wrappings pieces. Then she devised boxes with predictable contents, like the gift-wrapped packages in the Trappings series. But then the boxes became forbidding, cold, steely, metal vaults with ominous interior voids like her Introverted Box. And, finally, the occupants burst forth like Pandora's evils of the flesh, colorful, vibrant and alive with emotion.

These next works, Split (1984), Sleight of Hand (1984), Stigmata (1985) and Chasse (1985), complete the progression of self-awareness. Throughout this interior journey, Carol Kumata keeps in focus the importance of the boundaries of the box as the physical/sculptural equivalent of her bounded ego. The box, the enclosure the package is always the iconic "theme" to which all other elements relate. Her work changes in response to her awareness of the symbolic box as the central conforming influence of her artistic self.

Heart of Darkness, steel, metal leaf, each part 32 x 32 x 40″, 1988

I had first become aware of this theme in the "Form Beyond Function exhibit when a number of metalsmiths, especially Jill Slosburg, Christina DePaul, Martha Glowacki, Rachelle Theiwes and Thelma Coles, all presented works that used containers as ominous, brooding metaphors. Together these works cast an aura of psychic tension over the show. Since then, I have also become aware of a considerable body of "post-Minimalist" work, like that of Judith Shea. Martin Puryear, Jackie Winsor and John Newman, which has turned to volume and void as formal concepts. In all these examples, it became apparent to me that there was a conscious attempt to rediscover the psychic felicity of sculpture that had been left vacuous by Minimalism's austere, reductivist materiality.

Carol Kumata distinguishes herself from this group in her "scale-model sensibility," alluding to small, self-contained, narrative objects that might be classified as toys, for lack of a better word. Her objects find a confluence between the visual disturbance of a Surrealist objet d'art and the toy as the fulfillment of a child's desire to be in charge, in the same way that adults' hobbies clarify their relationship with the world.

The importance of working at this scale is that the viewer can engulf the object, take it in as private introspection, feeling free to manipulate it and possess it as a reflection of his/her own personality. With these small objects, Carol Kumata thus reaches the interior of our inhibitions, probing the region protected by our ego. Though the boxes seem to undermine our sense of play, we are elevated by their contents, rendered fragile to the point of vulnerability. They impart an ecstatic realization of the potential for psychic renewal.

Split II, metal, acrylic, wood, 5 x 10 x 6″. Photo: Bill Redic

This recapitulation of Carol Kumata's earlier work is meant as a prelude to understanding her pieces of the last few years. It is my way of coming to grips with work that appears to have little visual connection with the boxes, yet retains a strong thematic association.

These last pieces, Duel (1987), In/Out (1987). The Attraction of Opposites (1988), Heart of Darkness (1988), are still about Inside/outside, enclosures, containment and psychic transference. However, the forms themselves have taken an additional radical transformation. Gone are the stolid meal sheathing of the boxes, replaced by a conceptually rigorous wire mesh. The forms are no longer familiar as commonplace packages but now have become geometric configurations of almost abstract purity, seemingly derived from mathematical formulas or the controlling regularity of computer-aided design. The walls themselves are transparent, providing no clues to the separation of inside/outside but are more weblike-they divide space rather than containing volume—and less pictorial. cleansed of all emotive, symbolic or sensual expression.

The most significant difference in these new pieces is the scale and reorientation of the elements. While each piece is composed of two distinct parts, a duet of interaction, there is no clear sense of what is the container and what is the contained—but, unlike the Wrappings pieces where this ambiguity existed, the present partners are separate but equal in their relationship. Sometimes the two forms. which are now human scale, are totally disengaged, lying side by side; sometimes they touch, almost kiss in mutal recognition; and sometimes they are intertwined, enmeshed in their own web, looking like they are either bonding or about to divorce.

In/Out, steel, brass, sisal, 22 x 45 x 36″, 1988. Photo: Bill Redic

Usually one form is more dense than its other, suggesting that it has more substance, more meaning, leading us to think that this partner formerly was trapped in the other's more menacing web. Alternately the greater density of one might represent a skin that is peeling away, revealing the structure of the enclosure as a naked skeleton. Another clue to this relationship might be found in a hint of masculine/feminine polarities of shape, the one passively curvaceous and the other aggressively rectilinear. But it would not be right to extend this analogy too far. Although Carol Kumata's work is bound up in sexuality as it pertains to her zeal for honest feminine expression, this new work is liberated beyond the level of imagery to a level of subliminal, cybernetic game playing. In the end, what is paramount is not the ultimate shape that is forming in the mind's eye but what activity the shapes are involved in. Carol Kumata has reduced her symbolism to a rational structure of duration and ritual that is a played-out scenario of relationships.

Carol Kumata's recent view is less empirical, less descriptive of the nature of containment in symbolic forms and more a conceptual reconstruction of the space where containment is felt to operate in the mind. The space of this field is more dynamic and fluid than can be represented in linguistic or material utterances. The arena is more elemental than the ambiguity of superficial appearances, it lies deep in the primal structures of the mind that have been suppressed by our naive dependence on conventional language.

Michael Dunas is a writer specializing in design and craft and a lecturer on craft history at the University of the Arts, Philadelphia, PA.

By Michael Dunas
Metalsmith Magazine – 1989 Summer
In association with SNAG‘s
Metalsmith magazine, founded in 1980, is an award winning publication and the only magazine in America devoted to the metal arts.

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Michael Dunas

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