Masayuki Inoue’s repertoire includes sky-high monoliths and massive sculptures that span several meters. Many of these monumental works are held together by metal bolts and industrial adhesive, which in itself is not particularly unusual in the world of contemporary art. But here’s the twist: Inoue is first and foremost a ceramic artist.

He began his artistic career in the oil-painting department at Tama Art University (Tamabi) in western Tokyo in the early 1980s. At the time, a clay program initiated by contemporary ceramics pioneer Kimpei Nakamura was being offered as an elective course within the oils department.

In the beginning, Inoue’s interest in clay was speculative at best. “At first I had no interest in ceramics at all,” he said in a recent interview with The Japan Times. “But after two years in the painting program, I felt like I didn’t have my own sense of expression or a real idea of what I wanted to do. I was beginning to lose my will to continue, and that’s when I turned my eyes toward the ceramics program. . . . I knew I wouldn’t have the chance to work in clay once I graduated, so I thought ‘why not give it a shot?’ “

What started as a whim quickly became a passion, and once Inoue put down his painter’s palette and sat in front of the potter’s wheel, it was impossible to pull him away. Fascinated by the speed and ease with which he could create three-dimensional objects, Inoue fast became addicted to clay.

“I was captivated by the potter’s wheel,” he explains. “I remember looking at a blank canvas with a brush in my hand and feeling frustrated that I didn’t know where to start. But with the wheel, shapes just came to life in my hands. . . . Looking back at it now, I realize that I didn’t really want to create pots, I just wanted to see the clay rise on the wheel. But at the time, I felt like there had to be some meaning in my creations, so I began making vessels.”

Countless cups and bowls

Prof. Nakamura, whose whole identity and artistic mission centered on breaking free from traditional ceramics and using clay as a medium for artistic expression, didn’t know what to make of this enigmatic yet enthusiastic youth making countless cups and bowls on the potter’s wheel.

“At first he was making all of these uninspired vessels,” says Nakamura. “He was so enthusiastic and hard- working that I thought I should praise him, but I honestly didn’t know what to praise. Then one day [Inoue] noticed that a piece of his had cracked and was more interesting to look at than his whole forms. After that, everything changed.”

Inoue’s simple realization began a 25-year-long exploration of ceramics as a medium for avant-garde, nonfunctional forms. He began intentionally breaking his work, throwing large objects, cutting them into parts and reassembling them into abstract sculpture. He often just piled pieces together or used glue, and later metal bolts, to adhere parts — a practice that would send shivers up the spines of traditionalists.

Unlike his teacher Nakamura, who was born the son a second-generation master of the centuries-old Kutani ware tradition, Inoue didn’t carry any cultural baggage or have any preconceptions about clay. This left him completely free to explore the boundaries of the material and build whatever came to mind — without worrying about what ceramics “should be.”

It was only when he exhibited his work that Inoue understood the context within which he was working. Encouraged by Nakamura, he held his first show at Muramatsu Gallery in 1984 while he was still a graduate student at Tamabi. This inaugural show would become the first of more than 40 solo shows in the following 23 years.

“I had no idea what I was doing at first,” says Inoue. “That is, I wasn’t thinking about genre or the category of my work, so I was surprised by the reactions of conservative art critics who looked at my work with a cold eye.

” ‘Why are you doing this with ceramics? Why aren’t you using a wood-burning kiln?’ they’d say.

“Until that point I wasn’t conscious that I was working within a certain genre or context.”

Although completely unwitting, the timing of Inoue’s debut could not have been better. In the mid ’80s to the early ’90s, before Japan’s so-called economic bubble burst, there was an unprecedented interest by corporations and individuals eager to invest in contemporary art. At the same time, Inoue and his contemporaries were ushering in a new movement in nonfunctional ceramics that appealed to contemporary aesthetics even as it shocked traditionalists. Consequently, Inoue’s work began showing up in corporate lobbies, private collections and contemporary art museums around Japan.

Today, Inoue commutes between his studio/home in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, and Tamabi’s Hachioji campus where he became a professor in 1998. Still an extremely prolific artist, his work continues to defy categorization and wins the praise of both contemporary art and ceramic art critics and devotees.

Elusive and equally vague

But when asked how he would label himself, Inoue refuses to commit.

“I don’t know if I fall into the category of ceramic arts or contemporary art. On the other hand, I don’t feel as if the label ‘sculptor’ fits me either . . .

“If the intention is to make sculpture, then the resulting work is sculpture. If the intention is to make ceramic art, then it’s ceramics. . . . But whatever material an artist uses, I think there should be a reason — a necessity — for using that material. If a piece would work better in Styrofoam, then there’s no reason to make it out of ceramics.”

Just as Inoue is elusive in defining himself in artistic terms, he is equally vague when it comes to naming his pieces and exhibitions. He doesn’t like to create preconceptions about his work; instead he leaves the interpretation completely up to the viewer.

“I don’t think art is always about telling a story or communicating concept or message. In my case, my work is more visceral; it’s more about what people feel when they come into contact with it. It might be as simple as thinking, ‘Wow, that is huge!’ but I think there is an important realization even in that simple reaction.

“I think that this is the appeal of my work, even if it doesn’t have any concrete meaning. I think having objects like this in our lives is really important; things that don’t serve any pragmatic purpose but are only there as food for reflection.”

If you’re a fan of ceramic arts, Inoue’s upcoming solo show at Muramatsu Gallery is worth a look if only to see the work of a master craftsman. If you’re into contemporary art, you’ll no doubt find the sculptural aspects of Inoue’s work equally satisfying.

For everyone else, you can stop by simply to get a glimpse of something that stretches the boundaries of your imagination.

“Masayuki Inoue Solo Exhibition” runs at Muramatsu Gallery in Tokyo, July 16-28. (Open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., closed Sundays.) The gallery is a 1-min. walk from Kyobashi Station on the Ginza Line. For more information call (03) 3567-5665 or visit www.muramatsugallery.co.jp

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