How Japanese avant-garde ceramists tested the limits of clay

Review: Pure Form, Art Gallery of South Australia.

Japanese art after World War II is infinitely fascinating. At a time when the country was under Allied occupation and Japan had paid a heavy price for the end of the war in the Pacific, the artists enjoyed their newfound freedom.

Some of the most interesting works from this era were by avant-garde ceramicists. Their revolution in clay led them to abandon the Mingei tradition of Japanese folk crafts, which included making functional vessels such as tea bowls.

Instead, they redefined themselves as artists, valued individual expression and, as modernists with a Japanese slant, began to produce abstract sculptural ceramics.

Three generations of artists now work in this style, and their stunning work stretching from the late 1940s to 2021 is the subject of the Art Gallery of South Australia’s Pure Form exhibition. The title underlines the shift in ceramics from function to form.

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A delicate and refined aesthetic

At a time of often unnamed artisans making simple ceramic objects for everyday use, an integral part of the Mingei tradition, five Kyoto ceramicists were aware of the international trends in avant-garde modernism. They formed a group in 1948 called Sōdeisha, which means ‘crawling through the mud society’.

Initially there was a gradual shift towards pure form, as can be seen in Yamada Hikaru’s Glazed pot with sgraffito (scratched decoration) (1951-52). The shape still hints at a functional vessel, while the sgraffito line work—a decorative technique of cutting into a pale slip to reveal the clay beneath—is infused with Korean ceramics.

Suzuki Osamu, born Kyoto 1926, died Kyoto 2001, Square vase on pedestal (Koku yū hōko), ca.1950-60, Kyoto, stoneware with overglaze, 23.3 x 13.0 cm.
Gift from Norman Sparnon 1988, Art Gallery of New South Wales, © Suzuki Osamu, Photo: Felicity Jenkins

Other works in the exhibition refer to surrealism, such as Square Vase on Pedestal (1950-60) by Sōdeisha member Suzuki Osamu. There are vases without openings, elongated shapes that negate their function, or, as in the case of second-generation Sōdeisha artist Hayashi Hideyuki’s Walk (c. 1980), a minimal geometric shape that refers to the human body.

A delicate and refined aesthetic supports the work on display, such as that of Matsutani Fumio, a third-generation artist whose ceramics balance innovation and tradition, as in his Yellow (Ou) (2021). This is a flamboyant extension of the tea bowl architecture, brimming with beautiful line work.

Matsutani Fumio, born Ehime prefecture 1975, Geel (Ou), 2021, Ehime prefecture, stoneware, 43.2 x 52.3 x 28.2 cm.
Collection of Raphy Star, © Matsutani Fumio, Photo: Grant Hancock

As for drama, Moriyama Kanjiro’s metallic glazed Kai (Turn) (2020) takes credit for simulating movement. The tower-like shape is made up of individual pieces that are assembled and baked to create a beautiful swirling sculpture.

Installation view: Pure Form: Japanese sculptural ceramics, with Kai (Turn) VIII. by Moriyama Kanjiro.
Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide; photo: Saul Steed

Ceramic art for women and the wider diaspora

One of the many strengths of this exhibition is its focus on women of the caliber of Tsuboi Asuka, who was instrumental in the founding of the Women’s Association of Ceramic Art in Kyoto in 1957.

Women’s rights came to the fore during the occupation, along with the right to vote, and female ceramists gained visibility.

Tsuboi’s three-panel work Untitled (c. 2005) subtly inserts Japanese textile patterns in clay, with each panel adopting the movement of cloths swaying in the wind.

Another example is Tanaka Yu, whose cleverly wrapped bundles in clay mimic reality. Her yellow sculpture in the shape of a furoshiki (c. 2108), which looks like a beautifully wrapped object complete with a knotted tie, is inspired by the ancient Japanese art of cloth wrapping.

Tanaka Yū, born Ehime Prefecture 1989, Yellow statue in the shape of a furoshiki, c.2018, Kyoto, stoneware, matt glaze, 46.0 x 54.0 x 38.5 cm.
Collection of Raphy Star, © Tanaka Yū, Photo: Hazuki Kani

Japanese-trained ceramic sculptors now form a diaspora working outside Japan – one of these is US-based Kaneko Jun in Nebraska, whose large hand-built forms such as Untitled triangle (dango) (2004), use abstract design features.

Uranishi Kenji is another expatriate who has lived in Brisbane since 2004. His white glazed objects portray the wonderful world of coral in the Great Barrier Reef.

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Balance between tradition and the new

The porcelain statue on display is fantastic. Matsuda Yuriko’s erotically charged foot, In her shoes (c. 2007), with its tightly curled toes suggesting sexual pleasure, is a beautiful piece.

Matsuda Yuriko, born Ashiya, Hyōgō, 1943. In her shoes, c2007, Oshino, Yamanashi Prefecture, porcelain, underglaze blue and overglaze enamel, 33.0 x 31.0 x 16.0 cm (foot), 2.0 x 41 0.0 x 33.0 cm (base).
Collection of Raphy Star

Her subject is often the female body. Here the decorative surface evokes the patterns of Meiji ceramics, while the subject is completely in the Japanese tradition of that is it, or erotic images. Refreshing, it comes from a woman’s perspective.

Yet another porcelain piece, Struggling shapes (c. 2005) by Nakashima Harumi, almost resembles an octopus, but has only two feet. Its twists echo that of a Möbius comic, it seems disarming as an impossible form, but achieves a perfect balance. The blue color of the dot pattern harks back to the Japanese tradition of sometsuke that is underglaze painting in cobalt blue on porcelain or stoneware.

Contrary to the reference tradition, Mishima Kimiyo’s ceramic shapes in Box Batter -17 (2017) show bottles in newspaper packaging in a roughly opened box, much of their time. Her interest is in the imbalance between the human footprint and nature, seen in the waste of modern life, newspapers, packaging and soft drink bottles that pollute the environment.

Mishima Kimiyo, born Osaka, Japan, 1932, Box Batter -17,2017, Osaka, stoneware, serigraphs, 22.0 x 31.0 x 25.0 cm (box), 22.5 x 6.5 cm (bottle, each).
Collection of Raphy Star

The boundaries of clay

This is a must see exhibit.

The more than 100 works of art by 65 ceramicists, from public and private collections in Australia and Japan, and spanning modern and contemporary work, are dazzling in innovation, skill and aesthetics.

The sculptural leap to pure form in porcelain in Fukami Sueharu’s To the sky (c. 2013), simulates the flight itself and leaves the viewer elevated by the experience.

Fukami Sueharu, born Kyoto, Kyoto prefecture 1947, To the sky, ca.2013, Kyoto , slip cast porcelain, celadon glaze (seihakuji), foot: walnut, 31.0 x 88.0 x 24.0 cm.
Collection of Raphy Star, © Fukami Sueharu, Photo: Grant Hancock

While in the exhibition space, I heard some, including senior artists, puzzle over how different ceramic objects were actually produced. These ceramists have indeed pushed the boundaries of clay.

Pure Form is on display at the Art Gallery of South Australia until November 6.

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