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Artist Yo Akiyama has never been one to play by the rules. As a young student in the ceramics program at Kyoto City University of the Arts (Kyoto Geidai) in the mid-1970s, he quickly earned a reputation as a troublemaker, never content to accept his teacher’s lessons at face value.

“When I first learned to throw on the potter’s wheel, I made my bowls upside down,” remembers Akiyama. “My teachers told me that wasn’t the way to do it, but I wasn’t satisfied with that answer. If I was going to use clay as a tool for creation, I had to find my own reasons to use the material. When they said ‘it’s just the way it is done,’ I asked ‘Why?’ “

Four decades later, Akiyama’s rebellious nature has clearly served him well. He is currently the head of the ceramics department at his alma mater, and his monumental ceramic sculptures are celebrated both in Japan and around the globe. His current exhibition, “Yo Akiyama: Towards the Sea of Arche,” on display now through July 24 at Musee Tomo, Tokyo, is a tour de force of contemporary ceramic art.

As a student, Akiyama studied under a formidable team of professors led by contemporary ceramics pioneer Kazuo Yagi. Yagi was one of the leaders of the Sodeisha movement, a highly controversial and influential group of radical clay artists active in Japan from 1948 through 1988. However, the Kyoto Geidai ceramics faculty also included more traditional artists, and their teachings no doubt left a mark on the young Akiyama, despite his protests.

“There were instructors with completely different personalities and viewpoints. On the one hand there was Kazuo Yagi, and on the other there was Shin Fujihira, whose style was very decorative and poetic,” explains Akiyama. “At no point was everyone merely acting according to Professor Yagi’s direction. He could say one thing, but the other instructors would say something completely different. It was tough for the students, but they were left to think on their own.”

This atypical education meant the young Akiyama would receive a formal education in ceramics, and still be given the freedom to push the boundaries of tradition and of the clay itself. The result is a body of work that exhibits a profound understanding of the material as well as a penchant for the avant-garde, a combination that has won the artist accolades both in and outside of the ceramics community.

Akiyama’s transcendence of the ceramics world is no accident. He never intended to make ceramic art; his intentions are to make art using the material of clay. While he recognizes that the material is pivotal to his particular expression, Akyiyama is not interested in being categorized by his choice of material, nor is he intent on avoiding the label of ceramic artist. Instead, he is content on doing his work the way he wants to, and letting his audience determine to which category it belongs.

“The words ‘art’ or ‘ceramics’ are systems that people and history have created,” he posits. “They are reinforced in the exchange among those with a common recognition of the definitions of what ceramics is and who ceramists are. I don’t explain to people that I am a ceramist or a sculptor … I’m clearly using the materials and processes associated with ceramics, so I do not mind if people call me a ceramic artist. But others call me a sculptor.”

Regardless of whatever labels one might use to describe Akiyama’s work, clay remains pivotal to his expression, and his mastery of the material is consummate. He is fierce in his exploitation of the clay, pushing it to its limits in works that celebrate the material through bold expressions of texture and form. His process involves applying a blowtorch to raw, wheel-thrown clay bodies, which force-dries the skin of his meaty vessels. He then cuts and alters the forms, twisting and turning them inside out to create cracks and fissures in the surfaces that give the work an aged, geological look. The resulting pieces, all fired ceramic but none of which employ glaze, look at once timeworn and timeless.

Highlights of the Musee Tomo show include “Zone II,” an awe-inspiring steel-reinforced sculpture on loan from the 21st Century Museum of Art, Kanazawa, and “Peneplain 862,” a piece that is being exhibited for the first time in 30 years since its inaugural showing in 1986.

With more than 40 works on display, including representative examples of the artist’s extensive oeuvre from the 1980s and ’90s, as well as works completed just last year, this exhibition represents a rare opportunity to see a comprehensive retrospective collection of this veteran artist’s work.

“Yo Akiyama: Towards the Sea of Arche” at Musee Tomo, Tokyo runs until July 24; 11a.m.-6:30 p.m. ¥1,000. Closed Mon. www.musee-tomo.or.jp/info_english.html

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