Expressions that lie between functionality and art

by Matthew Larking

Special To The Japan Times

“Function Dysfunction” at the Tomio Koyama Gallery, Kyoto, brings together the ceramic works of three Americans: ceramicists Adam Silverman and Ani Kasten, and sculptor Alma Allen. Silverman, who felt that their works shared an aesthetic DNA, brought the three together, explaining that their pieces, which each sourced nature and in distinctive ways, would complement one another.

The theme of the exhibition concerns the utilitarian function of ceramic objects in everyday life in contrast to the non-utilitarian aspect of the art object — and all three artists operate somewhere between the poles.

While mostly unrelated to Japanese traditional ceramics, the exhibition concept is deeply rooted in Kyoto, in particular because it was here in the immediate years following World War II that Sodeisha, an avant-garde group of young potters, turned the utilitarian function of ceramics on its head by creating sculptural works that couldn’t be used as cups or bowls.

As Silverman noted, “If a ceramic piece has a hole at the top, then ultimately it is considered functional. Close the hole and it becomes dysfunctional.” It took him 10 years to finally close that hole. In the process of doing so, the holes in his pots gradually got smaller — so small that some people thought he was making incense holders.

Silverman is also known for cofounding the popular streetwear brand X-Large, and while collaborating on clothing designs during the day, he created pottery at night in his garage, fantasizing about doing it full time. In 2002, he finally set up his own studio and became a full-time potter.

His ceramic forms have evolved, he says, to become more sophisticated and elegant, and to articulate more geometries beyond the circle, including the intersection of forms such as spheres, eggs, and torsos — elemental forms found in practically all cultures. His pieces on show are, for the most part, brightly glazed pots that could easily be put to everyday use. Silverman, however, doesn’t insist on them having a purpose and titles each of his works with the high modernist “untitled.” In doing so, he abstracts the functionality of his vessels, positioning them as art rather than craft, or at least leaves some doubt as to which it might be.

Ani Kasten goes in for much more restrained coloristic expression in creams and browns. She conceives her ceramic materials to be natural expressive languages, and through mixing them, such as white stoneware with porcelain, she aims to bring them into conversation with one another. Like Silverman, she deals with issues of control or the lack of it and attempts to achieve some balance. The soul or nature of the materials is what she wants to bring out in the ceramic form.

Though her works often take inspiration from functional objects, Kasten is not interested in function but form. She spent five years in Nepal where she became interested in the elementary functional objects of Nepalese communities. Hence, while Kasten’s “Lg. Mortar and Pestle” takes the form of those everyday things, the work itself is not to be put to practical use. Similarly, the title “Lg. Boat Form with Black Grid” is suggestive of modernist abstraction, though the piece can be viewed as an incense holder — sticks of incense could be studded into the black grid and the ashes collected in the boat structure.

Alma Allen is similarly fascinated by language and symbols from the natural environment, such as the moon or sun. He explains that such symbols are easily transferable across different cultures and that everyone can participate in the interpretation of them, regardless of cultural background. He is concerned with states of consciousness in his work and how to express things that cannot be put into words. The inexplicable is interpreted in terms of sculptural form, and becomes his transference of emotion into shape and feeling into form.

In fact, Allen conceives of his objects as not really explaining anything at all. He chooses not to burden the viewers with his ideas but allows them to take what they can from the experience. His sculptural work uses mostly wood, stone and bronze, and his handsomely turned and polished bowls with shallow indentations at the top, such as “Claro Walnut Bowl,” show all the natural cracks of the material. Designated by the sculptor as “decorative,” the pieces retain something of a traditional aspect of craft in their display, though they lose their functionality for it — they are to be looked at, not used.

Since Sodeisha, the functionality of ceramic forms or the antithesis of it, has been the defining conceptual scaffolding around crafted objects. International ceramic production continues to concern itself with the endless variety that can be imagined within these delimitations.

“Function Dysfunction” at Tomio Koyama Gallery, Kyoto, runs till July 14; 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Free admission. Closed Sun. and Mon.