The traditional Mino pottery styles of Shino, Oribe, Yellow Seto and Black Seto have been the pride of the Japanese ceramic world since the Momoyama Period (1568-1615). However, Mino pottery just isn’t what it used to be. Gone are its chadogu (tea wares) days of the 17th-19th century, when it was used to serve local lords and wealthy merchants. Gone, too, are the times it was favored to serve 20th-century lady students of tea.
What, then, is the Mino pottery world up to in the 21st century? Well, it’s an energetic maze of “anything goes,” and in addition to a few surviving stalwart chadogu potters, we find works in clay across the whole gamut of artistic forms.
What defines Mino these days is on view at the Museum of Modern Ceramic Art, Gifu, in its ambitious “Mino Ceramics NOW 2004” exhibition that runs through Dec. 15 and features the works of about 120 potters.
Staged to celebrate the museum’s second anniversary this autumn, the exhibits on show in Gifu have been chosen to focus on that which matters most there: pots made by potters living and working in Mino.
“Mino Ceramics NOW 2004” focuses on 20th-century and contemporary Mino ware, and is divided into five sections: “Mino Ceramic Art Pioneers,” “Mino-yaki Renaissance,” “From Classics to Form,” “Objects and Craft” and “Public Competitions and New Wave.”
The “pioneers” defined 20th-century Mino pottery — beginning in the 1930s — and were led by the late Toyozo Arakawa (1894-1985) in his stunning revival of Momoyama tea-inspired wares. In 1955, Arakawa was designated a living national treasure for his Shino and Black Seto wares. Also in this first-wave group are Kobei Kato V (1893-1982), and the late living national treasures Hajime Kato (1900-68; designated for overglaze enamel in 1961) and Kaiji Tsukamoto (1912-90; designated for white and bluish porcelain in 1983), Fujio Koyama (1900-75), Chizan Ando I (1909-59) and Sakuzo Hineno (1907-84).
The “Renaissance” section, as might be expected, takes its theme from traditional forms, and here we find many chadogu potters using classical glazes. It must be hard for these potters not to fall under the spell of the ancient wares, so alive and entrancing as they still are. As Osamu Suzuki — a designated living treasure for his Shino — has said, “Our predecessors have opened up uncharted paths, and we today must understand their hearts and attitudes. What we have to beware of is copying and corrupt fashions.”
Most Mino potters have found their own path, including Suzuki’s powerful Shino chawan on display. Unfortunately, though, this is not always the case, as some do fall into mere flattery; there is nothing new or moving in Kenji Hara’s carbon copy of a Momoyama Period Ki-Seto chawan; lifeless at best and I wonder why it was chosen. Pieces that do sing here are Yoshihiko Yoshida’s soulful Red Shino chawan, Haruhiko Tsukamoto’s soaring Oribe platter, and Hiroshi Sakai’s denim-colored and incised large Shino vessel.
The “Classics to Form” section initially shows ancient Persian-inspired blue glazes. Then we move on to the Mino forms and we find a dynamic three-cut large Oribe platter of waves, mountains and the moon by Kuniya Kato, as well as very distinct forms of sculptural quality especially seen in Yuji Kato’s dripping ash-glaze cut bowl.
“Object and Crafts” is the most eclectic section, as it attempts to balance functional works with clay art such as the daintily painted red-overglaze enamel vessels — Takumi Kuroiwa’s set is pictured — and Shigenori Hobo’s dreamy composition titled “Icon of Justice.” The latter is a fantastic work of Dali-esque images — a missile impacted near a noh-like mask — and leaves the viewer encased in a sea of conflicting emotions, drifting between serenity and anger. The whole section is a clash of values: Cups and saucers battle for attention next to spacey alien figures (Yoji Kato), yet it somehow balances out in its elastic clay definitions.
In the last section we discover the future of Mino, for here we have the youngest potters (born between 1964-78) making works that pay homage to the great Shino chawan of the past (Yasukage Kato VIX) and also to wildly imaginative installations such as the series of Batman faces melting into the floor by Shigeki Hayashi.
The depth of talent is breathtaking and points to a brilliant future for Mino. My only concern is that more potters in this section utilize the fantastic glazes that put Mino on the map in the first place; it would be a major loss to the world if the glazes of Shino, Oribe, Yellow Seto and Black Seto faded from Mino. I’m sure as these artists mature they will also realize that as well.
Another exhibition of note is a rare look at modern Shodai-yaki in Tokyo until Oct. 17 at Ginza Kumamoto Honkan (Ginza 5-chome 3-16, next to the Sony Building). Shodai-yaki is fired in Kumamoto Prefecture and is one of Japan’s treasured mingei wares.
“Mino Ceramics NOW 2004” is open 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; closed Mondays, except when it is a holiday, in which case it is closed the next day. Admission is 800 yen for adults. To get there from Nagoya, take the JR Chuo line to JR Tajimi Station, from where the museum is 10 minutes by taxi.
The museum’s English homepage is at www.cpm-gifu.jp/museum/english/index.html
Robert Yellin’s Web site is at www.e-yakimono.net
The running period for the exhibition “Guggenheim Collection — From Renoir to Warhol” now on at the Bunkamura Museum of Art in Tokyo’s Shibuya district has been extended through Oct. 24. The exhibition was originally scheduled to end Oct. 11.
The museum (2-24-1 Dogenzaka, Shibuya-ku. Tel.  5777-8600) is next to the main Tokyu department store and the exhibition is open 10 a.m.-7 p.m. (till 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays). The same-day ticket is 1,400 yen.