In the immediate decades after World War II, part of what it meant to be a contemporary artist in Japan was to belong to some kind of regular exhibiting institution. These organizations were different from the prewar institutions that continued, such as the government-sponsored Bunten/Nitten or Tokyo-based Inten. In contrast to the stylistic conformism of those larger, conservative arts organizations, the new collectives stressed the individual stylistic freedom of their members.
The Pan Real Art Association from 1948, the more internationally focused Gutai from 1954 — and dozens of others organizations that proliferated — challenged their members to find their own distinctive voices. From around the late 1970s, however, given the increasing support of private dealer galleries, belonging to an art organization became suspect and the artist as an individual was emphasized.
Being a single voice in the artistic wilderness, however, presented problems for artists, particularly emerging ones. Through the din of voices it was difficult to be heard and stylistic trends became increasingly arduous to discern.
In recent years, the trend for loosely affiliated art groups has returned. In 1996, Takashi Murakami founded the Hiropon Factory, the precursor to his present KaiKai Kiki Co. Ltd. that supports and promotes a particular manga-inspired genre of contemporary art as well as the biannual Geisai art fair.
Another recent manifestation would be the Zipangu group exhibitions of 2011/12, which drew together the stable of artists from the Tokyo Mizuma Gallery and the Kyoto imura art gallery, establishing a revitalized Japanese aesthetic in painting and sculpture. The upshot of these exhibitions was to give a boost to younger artists and provide them with the opportunity to exhibit alongside some of their more established contemporaries.
The same goes now for contemporary ceramics.
Ikeyan is a network of ceramists that gravitates around the well-known Ryota Aoki (b. 1978), who works more than 10 hours a day, has not watched television in 13 years and has researched more than 100,000 of his own original glaze recipes. Testament to his meteoric rise and rock-star status in the world of contemporary ceramics is the 2011 NHK documentary, for which Aoki was interviewed by Taichi Kokubun of the super group Tokio.
Ikeyan participants hail from all over the country and the loose-knit group aims to carry out ceramic research, consider the good and bad aspects of the often rarefied ceramic world and drag the art form’s classical image into the present.
The organization has its origins in 2008, though it was not until the summer of 2011 that its 10 regular members invited other ceramists to join them for a get-together at a park in Toki in Gifu, a prefecture with pottery traditions that go back more than a millennium. The artists were asked to each bring a cup of their own making, essentially as a form of PR to show off their skills, and to use it to drink their fill while they ate and got to know each other.
The gist was to socialize and have fun — relief for the relative isolation potters find themselves in — but the 2011 get-together was also an audition.
Works by individuals were displayed at the picnic and a jury of 10 — made up of gallerists and Aoki himself — set about comparing and critiquing in the search for 10 new faces to add to their ranks, and for material to kick off a series of national exhibitions that would highlight the presence of ceramics as a contemporary art form.
Rather than being antagonistic toward traditional ceramics, works in the Ikeyan exhibition at Kyoto’s Tomio Koyama Gallery clearly reflect that most of the members come from traditional craft backgrounds. They reject using their craft to create purely decorative “objects” and retain a focus on the functionality of vessels and dishes.
So Yamada (b. 1979) is most representative of this. He was born into a ceramics family, his grandfather being the Living National Treasure Jozan Yamada III (1924-2005). So’s vessels are often small and unassuming, in matte black finishes or earthy reds suggestive of a traditional Chinese aesthetic. Takuro Kuwata’s (b.1981) cups, on the other hand, are the complete reverse, fashioned with poisonous pinks and bright yellows, and studded with metallic silver dots.
Gentaro Yokoyama (b.1978), who began creating ceramics as a child in America and returned to Japan in 2003, presents a particularly attractive work. His ceramic teapot appears like a hollowed-out rock with a golden handle and spout — seemingly impractical but for everyday use.
One of Aoki’s new works is a series of capsule containers inspired by the manga “Dragonball,” for which he also collaborates with the popular Tokyo-based bag-maker Porter who provide protective casings.
Ikeyan ceramists show that being stylistically diverse yet socially cohesive, the increasing presence of ceramics as part of the contemporary art world is much anticipated.
“Ikeyan” at Tomio Koyama Gallery, Kyoto, runs till Jan. 28; admission free; open 1 1 a.m.-7 p.m., closed Sun. and Mon. For more information, visit www.tomiokoyamagallery.com.