Get intimate with Ryota Aoki’s work and discover its secrets

by Matthew Larking

Special To The Japan Times

Known mostly for producing exquisite white ceramic ware, Ryota Aoki has about-turned for his current exhibition at Tomio Koyama Gallery, Kyoto. The overwhelming shift is to black wares: think practical, utilitarian tableware such as plates, cups, pitchers and vases. Inundated with orders, particularly from the United States and Canada, international demand for his work now outstrips the domestic, so the ceramicist has expanded his workshop staff to fill orders.

Glazes can be considered a kind of makeup for ceramics because they are applied to embellish the form beneath. When Aoki uses gold glazes on black ceramic wares, the combination dulls the luster of the precious metal and the various pieces appear matte and subdued. To appreciate them more fully you have to get intimate. From a distance these ceramics fail to register their individuality, though witnessed up close and turned in the hand, the thin gold glazes almost look like diffused fingerprints spreading across the vessel surfaces.

Other works in the show reveal Aoki’s interest in producing pieces associated with the tea ceremony, and these include a variety of tea bowls in glazes that run the gamut from precious metals such as gold and platinum to some that make the objects appear as if cast in aluminum. In smaller sake cups we get much the same, though particular pieces display a machine precision that contrasts other small bowls with rough sides and uneven rims.

Elsewhere, Aoki has produced a series of mid-sized bowls in glazes that bring to mind some of the best abstract painting. Catching the light, the metallic sheens, some almost rainbow-like, shimmer and morph into dominating then diminishing hues as the pieces are rotated in the palm. Some of these glazes are deeply pocked on the inside surfaces and resemble volcanic or even lunar landscapes while other bowls have exceedingly smooth surfaces.

There is a single objet d’art in the show: a deer’s head with antlers and gold eyes akin to those somewhat macabre hunting decorations displayed above fireplaces. The piece is based on a deer shot by Aoki’s acquaintance in Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture — its visage now living on for successive generations to bear witness. Unlike ancient painting, of which so little is extant except for that found on cave walls, ceramics are abundant, surviving tracts of time near unimaginable to the living. Such longevity is part of the meaning the work holds for this artist.

Aoki has become one of the leaders of a new generation of ceramicists, having helped establish Ikeyan, a group of young Japanese potters that he now oversees. More recently, he has expanded his cultural reach to the international community. Recruiting, via Facebook, interns to work in his studio, he has taken to furnishing a handful of young Italians and Indonesians with the skills he taught himself. At the end of their tenure, they will return to their own countries, produce their own new works and pass on their recently acquired knowledge and techniques.

“Ryota Aoki” at Tomio Koyama Gallery, Kyoto, runs till June 15; open 11Sa.m.- 7Sp.m. Free admission. Closed Sun., Mon. and holidays. www.tomiokoyamagallery.com