The evolution of ceramic form
By ROBERT YELLIN
for The Japan Times, May 9, 2001
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The creative journey for many an artist begins with an inner dialogue, a conflict, questioning. A voice in the inquisitive mind doubts existing rules and boundaries while challenging the artist to redefine and broaden them.
In traditional Japanese pottery, few succeed in making any real "progress" with age-old forms. There's not much improvement one can make to a chawan (tea bowl) or chaire (tea caddy) per se.
Yet, if you happen to be a ceramic artist more interested in sculptural forms in a semi-avant-garde realm, it's much easier to find one's own answer to that questioning voice. The rules are nonexistent and it's a wider road.
A look at 20 ceramic artists on this artistic path is at the Ibaraki Ceramic Art Museum until June 17 in an exhibition titled, Leaders of Contemporary Japanese Ceramics -- Exploring Techniques and Forms for the New Century. The works range from the highly refined to the seriously grotesque. All can be termed objets d'art -- most have no specific function other than to challenge the artist's own inner voice and the viewer's eye to reassess how they view ceramic art.
In tradition-anchored Japan it's essential to have these ceramic artists around (they do exist in the functional world as well), for they challenge the status quo. Some of the roads they follow lead us to sweeping vistas while others take us to dead ends; the destination is not the point though -- it's the journey, step by step, that has value.
Ceramic objets d'art were first made in Japan after World War II by the influential Sodeisha group in Kyoto. Some tradition-born potters were later passed the baton by this revolutionary group and took off running.
One such potter, born in Tokoname, is Koie Ryoji . His work featured in this exhibition actually hurt my ears! I walked into the large main hall and thought I had walked into the boiler room instead - such was the cacophonous din echoing in the room.
The installation, titled "Concert at Lotus Patch," has pedestals topped by white ceramic disks, resembling LP records, which Koie wishes the viewer to see as lotus petals rising from the murk of contemporary society; his work often has such a message. Back against the wall is a used record player with one of the white disks grating against the poor needle, which surely won't survive the exhibition. Doesn't need to, though; good needle or bad, the ceramic work sounds the same.
After having my fill of Koie's symphony, I turned to the left to see a row of huge tusklike porcelain monoliths in an installation called "White Thoughts: Energy of Innocence," created by Hiromi Itabashi. Gently curving and standing over two meters tall in their metal stands, the nine pieces stood in a perfect silent row, contradicting their boisterous neighbor.
Inside the large main hall were more works that followed in Koie's lawlessness and Itabashi's calculated coolness. A long-standing interrogator of the ceramic scene is Kinpei Nakamura who, like Koie, was also born in a traditional potting area. Yet he never took to the Kutani wheel of his father, but established his own kiln in Tokyo. There he makes so-called kitsch wares that seem like components fastened together after Nakamura rummaged through a junkyard. His four works revolve around the theme of the "Exploration of Japanese Taste."
Which leads us to a Raku chawan, the epitome of Japanese taste. Maybe nothing defines Japanese ceramic art more than a Raku chawan: simple, deep, organic, useful. So, why include Raku in such a liberal exhibition? Kichizaemon Raku XV is redefining Raku with his impressionistic color schemes and boldly formed chawan that fit in perfectly with the exhibition's theme of broadening techniques and challenging forms.
More than any other potter here, it was Kyoto's Raku who had the most difficult questions to ponder, placed before him with like a charmed burden by 14 previous generations of his family; he replied magnificently.
The same can be said for fellow Kyoto ceramic artists Tatsusuke Kuriki and Sueharu Fukami. Both have invented styles that define their art, one a stacking of unaligned rings and the other a slip-mold process. The results are breathtaking.
Kuriki's beige and brownish-red vessels have bands wrapped around them like a turban, with soft incised lines racing over the body. Their space-defying intricacy reminded me of the work of M.C. Escher.
Fukami's work is sleek, brilliant celadon that enraptures the viewer with its bladelike edges, jewel-like surfaces and taut lines. He sets his pieces on blocks of wood or stone, lifting them as if they were mantas gliding through a tropical sea.
Others in this main room include the eloquent work of Shigekazu Nagae, the bubblegum-colored mounds of Kosho Ito and the geometrical forms of Rokubee Kiyomizu Vlll.
Not to be missed as one exits into the long corridor is a long beach umbrella form in dark earth tones by Akiyama Yoh. Part of his forming process involves the use of a burner to induce cracks on the large-scale pieces. His work is primitive yet modern, rough yet refined, moody yet uplifting. It appears to have been dug out of the ground after centuries of lying dormant; it has a presence that fills ones imagination for days. As does the work of this years Japan Ceramic Society Award winner, Ogawa Machiko. Her cylindrical vessels, also looking as if they had been unearthed, are filled with a waterlike glaze that shimmers on the surface.
It would be nice if all the work had shone like Ogawa's, but unfortunately not all did. The Pop-Arty, balloon-shaped blue and white figures of Harumi Nagashima would have been better if they actually did float away, and the dinosaur form from Toshiju Saito would have also been better in motion -- walking out the door. Granted, the technique here is interesting, but the piece is not.
Yet, it's the journey of the artist that we follow here. Where they go in the objet world is where none have gone before, and that's what makes this exhibition come alive. Others in the show are Masayuki Inoue, Tsuyoshi Shima, Yasuyoshi Sugiura, Asuka Tsuboi, Yuki Nakagawa and Morihiro Wada. Click here for more photos by many of the above artists.
In addition to this special exhibition, the museum has a great look at the works of all ceramic living national treasures, and two rooms dedicated to the works of Kosei Matsui, LNT for neriage, and Itaya Hazan, both Ibaraki natives.
"Leaders of Contemporary Japanese Ceramics" at Ibaraki Ceramic Art Museum in Kasama, Ibaraki Prefecture, (0296) 70-0011. Admission is 300 yen. For more information see the Web site (Japanese only)
by clicking here.
The Japan Times: May 9, 2001
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