Fired-up tales of ceramics in wonderland

by Matthew Larking

Special To The Japan Times

Craft was maligned in Japan’s Meiji Era (1868-1912) as the transposition of Western aesthetic theory denigrated it in relation to grand ideas of “fine art.” All the while, though, it was an important export industry and a core component of Japan’s contributions to various world expositions. It became resurgent, however, as a modern Japanese art form from the 1920s with the establishment of the Mingei (Arts of the People) movement, and several of the prominent figures going on to achieve “artist-potter” status, such as Tomimoto Kenkichi and Kawai Kanjiro. Further heretic status was reserved for Yagi Kazuo who absolved the utilitarian nature of the craft object.

In recent years, crafts have been rehabilitated in the contemporary art world — so offering the context for the ongoing exhibition, “The Wonderland of Ceramic Art,” at the Tomio Koyama Gallery, Kyoto, which takes up five Kyoto-based ceramic artists and the artist group fujita+chisato. All the artists are emerging, and the show was curated by Mikako Sawada, author of “Kyoto Utsuwa Sampo,” a recent guide to Kyoto ceramics.

Kaoru Taniuchi trained in textiles and that early interest shows in the way she treats the clay quite literally as a material that can be folded and draped into concave forms. The smaller works placed on horizontal surfaces could function as dishes, though her larger structures are hung on the wall, their surfaces folding in on themselves into slitted openings. Lines are scraped into the surface of the forms while the clay is still wet and the often cool-colored glazes appear like stains spreading through fabrics.

Satoshi Masuda makes exceedingly practical items, including everyday bowls and vessels, and takes his inspiration from home and abroad. Specifically, he leans toward the work of the Austrian-born British potter Lucie Rie and the more local Onta-yaki, a style of ceramics from Kyushu that merged with the Mingei movement, utilizing a lathe to carve patterns onto the work’s surface. The results are minimally subdued in color — off-whites and deep browns — and set against the white gallery walls they are oddly reminiscent of the still-life paintings by the Italian modernist Giorgio Morandi.

Nao Hara draws upon a visual resemblance with the ceramic tradition of blue-and-white wares that originated in Iran in the ninth century, and were developed in China over a millennium. She literally puts the tradition into play by ornamenting her vases with bizarre appendages such as the three cutesy rabbits that ride a tricycle and form the leg of one pot, or the hot-pink teats that hold another vessel up. The nasty pinks and blues suggest the stereotypical color coding of infants’ clothing and their environments, and their disharmonies are intended to evoke the scary/cute aesthetic that underpins a great deal of postwar culture in infantilized manga, anime and the subsequent tributary in contemporary art from the 1990s.

Aki Katayama applies pigment to clay, flattens it and repeats the process. She then carves away about nine-tenths of the clay, and in the hollowed-out forms emerge the pigments that appear almost as hand-drawn wavy lines or something like the ripples of tidal recession left behind on a seashore.

Shohei Fujita’s works are twice-baked at different temperatures and the glazes are cut, resulting in exceedingly elegant spotty patterns in soft colors. His other work in combination with Chisato Yamano for the art unit fujita+chisato assembles around 30 small vessels arranged as an installation for which the ceramic surfaces become the support for fragmented narrative painting. Snippets deal with childhood memories and imaginative play in everyday life, such as going fishing by the sea, a family visit to an aquarium, and the inside of a sushi shop. The hodge-podge of shapes and forms with an array of narrative instances acts almost as a visual metaphor for the reminiscence of childhood in general.

Where the show hiccups is in its conceptual formulation, conceived of as something moving “beyond the boundary between sculpture and ceramics.” However, all the ceramics are inherently sculptural, sharing as they do a vocabulary of carving and modeling, so that what boundary is being transcended is hard to pin down, especially given that nearly every piece on display retains practical utility — long crafts’ claim to distinction.

“The Wonderland of Ceramic Art” at the Tomio Koyama Gallery, Kyoto, runs till June 14; free admission; open 11 a.m.- 7 p.m., closed Sun. and Mon. For more information, visit www.tomiokoyamagallery.com.