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hpgrp Gallery, Omotesando
Closes on Dec. 9

The best artwork challenges us to look at the world in a new or different light, or perhaps to face harsh truths that elude us otherwise. Kenjiro Kitade’s ceramic sculpture does just that, painting a rather bleak picture of humanity with a sense of humor and whimsy that leaves the viewer bearing the artist no grudge.

Using sheep as metaphors for human shortcomings, Kitade pokes fun at political, social and environmental issues that few Japanese artists of his generation dare to address. His “Greed” series, currently on display at the hpgrp Gallery in Omotesando (www.artdiv-hpf.com/tokyo/), shows three sheep hungrily devouring the Earth and all its resources.

The first figure in the ruminative triad is a bloated sheep sucking out the insides of the Earth with a straw, while the second fleshy animal gobbles up the globe as if it were a piece of fruit. When there is nothing left, the third and final figure is clearly still not satisfied, as it reaches out into space searching for the next thing to consume.

Born in Japan, Kitade was a keen creator even as a child and remembers fondly his earliest artistic endeavors with cartoons and Lego. As fate would have it, his elementary school had a ceramics studio, and he was instantly drawn to the feel and immediacy of the clay. He moved to the United States with his parents in 1990, and didn’t get his hands into clay again until he went to formally study art at New York University.

Remaining in New York after earning a Master of Fine Arts in 2004, he quickly built a national and international reputation. Just a year out of school, Kitade took the bronze prize at South Korea’s World Ceramic Exposition 2005, and earlier this month he was invited to show at the highly selective SOFA show (Sculpture Objects and Functional Art Exposition) in Chicago.

Kitade doesn’t consider himself a ceramic artist, saying instead that he’s a sculptor who favors clay as his material for creation. Like it or not, though, he is part of a long clay tradition in both his native Japan and in the United States, and the history of the material often colors the way his work is perceived. In the states he struggles with the “craft” stigma that is still attached to clay.

“That was really tough for me, being at NYU, where almost everyone considers clay work as craft,” he says. “Are these crafts?” he asks defiantly, pointing to his provocative sculptures.

In Japan, Kitade faces a different challenge — how to explain his work to an audience who largely equates clay with functional ware, and will likely view it in the context of a long and sometimes guarded ceramics tradition.

“Kitade Art,” his first show in his native Japan, is both an exciting and apprehensive homecoming for the young artist, who is anxious to see how his work will be received in Tokyo. Gallery director Kentaro Totsuka was quick to offer the first review.

“I don’t really have any concern about those art-vs.-craft kind of issues,” says Totsuka. “Visually it’s exciting, conceptually it’s strong, and the subject is very deep; it’s perfect. I can’t wait to see his next body of work.”

But why not go to the gallery and decide for yourself? Whether you love it or hate it, consider it sculpture or ceramic art, “Kitade Art” at the very least offers food for thought — even if in this case that food is the very Earth itself.

D.H. Rosen is a ceramic artist based in Tokyo. He welcomes questions and comments at yakimonos@earthlink.net

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