Seeming to peer out the window of the gallery is a brightly colored red and blue polka-dot blob. For a moment the amorphous shape looks like it is slowly crawling up the wall, till further inspection suggests that the piece is actually still — or is it? Such is the work of Japanese ceramic artist Chiho Aono, who seeks to capture movement in high-fire clay forms that have a clear influence from nature and breathe with a life of their own.
“I’m not interested in making static forms,” said Aono in an interview with The Japan Times recently. “I want to make work that looks like it is moving with the passage of time, so that the same piece would somehow appear different everyday. I see time as a ‘spice’ for my artwork.”
Works such as her “Verdraenger” series, a German title that translates loosely as “suppression,” look as if they are about to burst open from an inherent tension within. Sandwiched between ceramic blocks, these pieces call to mind the genesis of the most basic life forms trying to crawl out from between two rocks. Overall, the geometric foundations custom-designed for each piece on display act as built-in pedestals, but they also provide a sharp contrast between the globular forms and angular bases. Aono’s use of vivid colors and vibrant surface patterns curiously does not make her forms seem synthetic, but instead suggest that the viewer has simply encountered a yet undiscovered species.
Though Aono has been working in clay for over 10 years, she never studied traditional pottery. A Tama Art University (Tamabi) graduate, she is an heir to a new tradition in contemporary ceramics in which expression is encouraged foremost.
“When I hear other ceramic artists talking, I don’t feel like I am one of them,” says Aono. “I didn’t start by making vessels [such as vases and pots], and technique is not so important for me. Sometimes I feel that in the world of Japanese ceramics, there is a tendency to focus more on showing off technique than artistry.”
Nonetheless, Aono, who began at Tamabi’s oil-painting department, does feel an attraction to the process of creating works in clay.
“I like the fact that I have direct contact with the material,” she says. “The process of firing is also somehow satisfying. Working in oils, it was very difficult for me to determine when a piece was finished. But with ceramics, you put the piece in the kiln and when it comes out it’s complete. There’s also something about the result being out of your hands, about leaving some of it up to the kiln, that is also attractive. I think I use this material because I enjoy the process involved, but that doesn’t mean that I want the finished product to be limited to being viewed only within the realm of ‘ceramic art.’ “
That her work transcends genre boundaries is to her advantage.
“Since I use clay, I can enter all of the craft competitions in Japan. But my work also falls into the sculpture category, so sometimes I enter sculpture shows,” says Aono. “Right now I don’t feel a strong personal separation between art and craft; I don’t feel the need to label myself as an artist as opposed to a craftsman. I simply exhibit my work where I think it will be appreciated.”
The lines between art and craft were traditionally less clearly defined in Japan than in the West, but the introduction of Western fine-arts education to Japan has challenged educators and students to consider concept as well as form when creating work. Aono, who says she finds inspiration for her forms in the cycles of nature, thinks attaching a clear concept to her work can limit her creative freedom.
“[At one point in my career] I got wrapped up in the whole idea of concept and I found that to be stifling. I feel like when artists become over-concerned with concept, their creativity actually becomes limited,” she says. “If I am enthralled with certain shapes or the use of certain colors, a defined concept might force me to give up some of these things. Right now I’m more interested in just being honest with my feelings and doing what comes naturally.”
What clearly comes naturally to Chiho Aono is being prolific, and her dynamic body of work has earned her a noteworthy reputation in the Japanese arts community. Last year she was selected to participate in the prestigious “2005 International Ceramics Competition Mino, Japan” and more recently she was asked by Kimpei Nakamura — a pioneer in Japanese contemporary ceramics and Aono’s former teacher — to take part in the “Clay Connection by Freeter” exhibit he curated at the Spiral Gallery in Omotesando.
Gallery Sou offers a more intimate showcase for her work. Far from the fervor of Omotesando and the glitter of Ginza, it provides the perfect setting for her friendly forms. The venue is part of a gallery walk in Kunitachi, where many of the art spaces feel more like you have entered someone’s living room to view their private collections than as like you are visiting a commercial space. Gallery Sou is celebrating its 24th anniversary with Aono’s solo show, and although it’s well off the beaten path, it’s definitely worth a look.