Machiko Munakata’s five ceramic sculptures at Dubhe Carreno reflect a lifelong quest to organize her world. Compellingly strange, they balance smooth but surprising geometric configurations with repeating painted designs on the surface. “I feel very chaotic,” she says, “and compelled to seek order. I would always fix my friends’ toilet paper so that it came up over the top. I still check three times that the alarm clock is set correctly.” Born in the United States to Japanese parents and raised in Japan, she adds, “I’m a terrible dresser. When I was little I used to put on all these different things, and my mother would get this horrified look.” Her elite Japanese high school was so strict that Munakata transferred to a U.S. boarding school, a decision her parents supported; she’s lived in the United States ever since. But the delicacy of her flawless surfaces shows the influence of her early schooling: “Skill and craftsmanship are very important.”

In college, Munakata says, she was “terrible in color theory,” and she began studying the colors in fabric patterns. “I felt like I needed to know why this color and that color can’t be together, what goes with what, what is acceptable in society.” Her mother had a strong aesthetic sense. “If we were buying a teacup, she would say if one was too thick or too thin. She’d say, ‘This color of food doesn’t go with this plate. I think the spinach looks better on the black plate than on the brown one.'” Munakata’s father worked for a large Japanese bank, and the family moved a lot. “When I was growing up, the moves were not voluntary, and it put a damper on my social skills. When I got comfortable in one place, we would move. I wasn’t too happy about it, but when I grew up it became a habit, and now I like to be in new environments.” Since coming to this country in 1991 she’s had 14 homes, most recently in Gurnee, where she moved last year.

Munakata became fascinated by the sculptural qualities of modern architecture while at the College of Worcester. She applied to two undergrad programs at Washington University, one in art and one in architecture, and ended up at the art school, where an introductory ceramics course brought back memories of her mother’s handmade collection. Munakata started making teapots but soon found herself ignoring functionality in favor of aesthetics, making a top opening that was too small or leaving no opening at all in the spout. Soon she began making abstract ceramic sculptures. About four years ago she noticed that these were getting “louder and louder and more and more cluttered.” Aiming to simplify her architectural vocabulary, she started focusing on forms like boxes and cylinders. Soon afterward she added the repeating painted patterns in another attempt to make her art more orderly.

Architecture isn’t the only influence on Munakata’s work. The tiny painted patterns reflect the designs on product packaging and Paul Klee’s whimsical forms. In Annie, named after Munakata’s dog, the repeating designs look like a dog’s head with two ears. In Half–a cylinder cut in half lengthwise with a disk protruding from one side–the repeating pattern is a tiger, she says. The parabolic Untitled #2, which is topped by a small spiked ball on a platform, has as its principal surface pattern many small squares, each containing a brown circle with three protuberances and a pink area inside. “These are abstracted versions of my consciousness,” she says. “The circles are my head, the three points are my ears–the third ear shows I want to be a good listener. The pink is a mouse. Sometimes I daydream that a mouse talks to me in my head. I’m not hearing voices–I know these are my own thoughts.” Occupying less than half the surface, Munakata’s painted areas are dynamically balanced with the sculptural elements. She says, “I think I’m trying to create harmony between the surface and the form.”

Machiko Munakata

When: Through 9/2

Where: Dubhe Carreno, 1841 S. Halsted

Info: 312-666-3150

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Fred Camper.