Spectacular diversity of clay

by Robert Yellin

As noted in this column last month, Japanese ceramic art is finding a wider audience overseas. Many collectors search out the great potters of the past, such as Shoji Hamada (1894-1978) or Kanjiro Kawai (1890-1966), while more savvy collectors are looking to find out who’s hot in Japan today.

One name many of these contemporary collectors will be hearing more about is Izu-based ceramic artist Takayuki Sakiyama. He’ll be represented at SOFA (Sculptural Objects and Functional Art) in New York in early June. What will excite collectors is not only his groundbreaking forms and patterns, but his recent award of one of Japan’s most prestigious ceramic art prizes — the Grand Prize and also the Katsura no Miya Prize at the biennial 18th Japan Ceramic Art exhibition which runs till 24 May in Tokyo.

Sakiyama’s swirling forms are so kinaesthetically captivating that the visual illusion of the sea’s movement in his work almost seems to be combined with the sound of the waves. From an early age Sakiyama wanted to live and work by the ocean. “When I was in junior high school I knew I had to find a way to be an artist and live by the sea,” he told The Japan Times by phone the other day. “For three years after graduating from Osaka Art University, I traveled throughout Japan looking for an inspiring ocean view to set up my studio. I found that ideal spot on the west coast of the Izu Peninsula.”

Upon viewing Sakiyama’s award-winning piece titled “Choutou” we find the soft sandy color of the shore along with a stunning sense of balance of line. The sweeping form is frozen in motion as it flows into a mystical empty center space. There’s none of the “clay flavor” so prized by Japanese ceramic art collectors, nor the enrapturing beauty of prismatic glazes, only form here to dazzle the mind. Etched lines meander over the surface in rhythmical harmony. It is a very noble work indeed. And in this grand exhibition it’s not the only one. The JCA exhibition was started in 1971 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Mainichi Shimbun Newspaper and has grown to become one of Japan’s most prestigious ceramic events.

This year 1,101 ceramic works by 903 artists were submitted for consideration, with only 198 pieces chosen as worthy of inclusion by the panel of 18 distinguished judges. In addition there are works by 26 invited ceramic artists, including four living national treasures and popular potters such as Masahiko Ichino, Ryuichi Kakurezaki, Kazuo Takiguchi, Ken Mihara, Togaku Mori and Taimei Morino. Avant-garde works by Tokyo-yaki writer and guru Kimpei Nakamura, and Ito Kosho and Masayuki Inoue are also included in the invited group.

The JCA exhibition is divided into three categories dento (traditional), jiyuzokei (free forms) and jitsuyo toki (applied pottery). As with past JCA exhibitions, the first category is the most numerous with 122 works, followed by 39 in the jiyuzokei division and 38 in the jitsuyo toki section. The top prize, and the Mainichi Newspaper Award, in the jiyuzokei section went to Tomotsu Suzuki for his haunting rendition of ghostly blue spring flowers blooming from silver stems. In the last division, a set of two-tone bowls by Akira Sakamoto was also given a top prize along with another Mainichi Award. The other main prize — the Japan Ceramic Art Exhibition Prize — was bestowed on Masuko Ogino for her large marbled clay blue-tinged bowl. All of these award-winning works greet the visitor as they enter the exhibition hall.

The diversity of the exhibition is truly spectacular. From small tea caddies to powerfully executed large jars to metaphoric sculptural images, the viewer could easily be bewitched by the alchemic power that a clay artist possesses. Regional styles of traditional pottery are dutifully represented, such as Bizen, Hagi and Kasama, while genres that do not depend on location — celadon or bluish-white porcelain being prime examples — are also on show here. An exquisite example of the latter is by Atsuko Kubota with her large checked pale-blue plate.

Other works that caught my eye in the first division — and there were many — included Hiromi Itabashi’s brittle “Hollow Space” vessel, Kazuo Takiguchi’s basket-woven blue mudai piece, Imaizumi Imaemon’s snowy winter night porcelain platter, Mitsumasa Shimosato’s deep-sea blue bowl with translucent fish, and Shigemasa Minami’s Kutani bowl with windswept flower.

The exhibition hall is divided into two long promenades and as you turn the corner at the end of the first you are are met by the jiyuzokei and jitsuyo toki section, of which there is much to ponder in the former, while the latter is simply fine tableware. Some works in the jiyuzokei section were easy to appreciate, such as Motofumi Shinohara’s set of six water blossoms, or Marie Nakamoto’s “Coral Form.” Reiko Ozaki’s mirrored fantasy work had little to do with clay and the same can be said for many of the works in this section, some resembling bronze, marble or wood. That said, some pieces here are riveting, including Emiko Matsuzawa’s twisting spiral form, Keiko Murayama’s aboriginal blue figure, and Rika Yoshida’s “Bless.” And being blessed, is a good way of describing living in Japan with all its clay wonders. No other ceramic art exhibition judged by a jury offers the viewer as much as the JCA exhibition.

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