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Contemporary Clay: Japanese Ceramics for the New Century
Yagi Akira, Nesting covered boxes (Ireko futamono), 1994. Porcelain, largest: 6 ¾ x 4 ¼ in. (12.3 x 10.8 cm). Photo by Richard P. Goodbody. Gift to Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in 2005 from Halsey and Alice North. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

NEW YORK.- Presented by Japan Society Gallery, Contemporary Clay: Japanese Ceramics for the New Century is a vibrant survey featuring creative and iconoclastic works by the finest potters working in Japan today. Conceived and curated by Joe Earle, Matsutaro Shoriki Chair of the Department of Art of Asia, Oceania, and Africa at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, this exhibition features more than 100 works and will be on display at Japan Society through January 21, 2007. In addition to the 60 pieces shown in the opening exhibition in Boston earlier this year, Japan Society's presentation of Contemporary Clay also features some 40 pieces from New York and Boston private collections and museums.

The exhibition is a survey of the kaleidoscope of colors, forms, glazes, textures, and sizes that populate the world of contemporary Japanese ceramics. Including numerous objects created by artists working in Japan’s medieval ceramic centers as well as works of those influenced by the avant-garde Sōdeisha group, Contemporary Clay celebrates the rich history of Japanese ceramics and those who have made lasting contributions to the art form over the past half century. According to Japan Society Interim President Richard J. Wood, “The potters represented in Contemporary Clay are important contemporary artists who are deeply rooted in various Japanese ceramic traditions. Their work is often strikingly modern, even revolutionary, yet at the same time very Japanese in its underlying aesthetic. I believe this exhibition provides a fascinating window into modern Japanese culture, and we at Japan Society are honored to present Joe Earle's stunning selection.”

Founded in the late 1940s by three young Kyoto artists, the Sōdeisha group challenged the city’s centuries-old crafts tradition and fostered a new style, much influenced by international modernist trends, that was non-utilitarian and often purely sculptural. Yet at the same time, the Sōdeisha artists embraced the past, utilizing many time-honored techniques practiced by ceramists throughout Japanese history. This tension between old and new is evident in many of the works that will be on view, from finely crafted porcelains to rough-hewn vessels that revel in the “happy accidents” of wood-fired kilns, and to ironic objects that mimic newspapers, discarded trash, and body parts.

Many of the works added to the Japan Society exhibition were created by the original founders of Sōdeisha, and the final section includes a wide range of pieces by their students and followers. One of the most significant additions, not shown in Boston, will be A Cloud Remembered, a masterwork by Yagi Kazuo, who is widely regarded as the leading figure in post-War Japanese ceramics. On loan from The Museum of Modern Art, New York, A Cloud Remembered exemplifies Yagi’s edgy, sometimes disturbing combination of a biomorphic abstract vocabulary with a traditional ceramic medium. According to the show’s curator, Joe Earle, “The inclusion of Yagi’s A Cloud Remembered, along with other sculptural works by his Sōdeisha colleagues, gives the New York showing of this exhibition an important new historical dimension. Extensive new loans from private collections, including works created since the show opened in Boston last fall, ensure that Contemporary Clay remains truly contemporary and offers New Yorkers an even richer sampling of Japanese ceramic genius.”

Background on the Exhibition - As early as the late 16th century, Japan was the first culture in which potters could earn reputations as named, individual creative artists. At the beginning of the 20 th century, the unusual status accorded to outstanding ceramists in Japan helped create the Western ideal of the “artist-potter,” which was re-imported to Japan after the trauma of World War II, this time energized by both global influences and traditional philosophies and techniques. In the aftermath of their defeat in the war, many Japanese lost confidence in their political system, as well as intellectual, artistic, and cultural conventions. In Kyoto, Japan’s former capital and a ceramic center, many disillusioned young potters left their family workshops to form independent groups that broke with tradition, among them Sōdeisha. Combining a deep respect for technical processes with the desire to explore abstract, sculptural form, the group became one of the leading voices of the period. Contemporary Clay begins with an introduction to the innovators of the 1940s, among them the founders of Sōdeisha, Yagi Kazuo (whose subversive use and later abandonment of the potter’s wheel was a hallmark of the group), Suzuki Osamu, and Yamada Hikaru.

The exhibition continues with an exploration of works created in ancient, regional, stoneware kilns. Japanese potters first created stoneware nearly 1,500 years ago, but it was not until the end of the 15th century that potters from districts such as Bizen (on Japan’s main island) and Shigaraki (near Kyoto) began to attract the attention of tea-ceremony connoisseurs who preferred their more purely Japanese aesthetic to the Chinese and Korean wares favored by their predecessors. Through the patronage of these wealthy individuals, the old stoneware centers prospered during the 16th century, their rustic and seemingly artless style helping to define the reputation of Japanese ceramics. The 1930s and ’40s brought with them renewed interest in these old stoneware kilns. Revivals of the classic styles were among their earliest uses, but later generations have taken the tradition in new directions, utilizing innovative techniques and incorporating global trends. Works by Isezaki Jun and Nishihata Tadashi are among the highlights of this section.

Following this is a small area devoted to the work of three ceramic artists who emulate natural forms and processes. Creating a bridge between this section and the last is Kohyama Yasuhisa’s work, which is fired and refired to create an aesthetic reminiscent of Japan’s oldest stoneware. Koike Shōko’s work is inspired by marine forms and evokes thoughts of shells, ocean waves and seaside cliffs. Sakiyama Takayuki, one of the few artists in the exhibition who does not work in one of Japan’s old ceramic centers or its great cities, creates containers that bring to mind the gently rippling ocean or a sandy beach.

Contemporary Clay then delves into the world of porcelain production, one of the youngest forms of pottery in the exhibition. Approximately 400 years ago, porcelain stone deposits were found in the town of Arita in Kyushu by Korean potters brought to Japan after an unsuccessful invasion of Korea. Transforming the traditional material with innovative technologies, Yagi Akira (son of Sōdeisha founder Yagi Kazuo), Kawase Shinobu, and Miyanaga Tōzan are among the masters of glazed porcelain presented in the exhibition. Even less traditional porcelain forms are presented as well.

Defying classification are the four artists presented in the next section. Wada Morihiro creates crisp, almost graphic designs in his large stoneware works and is a master of Shigaraki ware. The bold experimentalist Koie Ryōji revels in the risks of the ceramic process, scoring the surfaces of his works with seemingly random lines and sometimes firing them on their sides. Matsuda Yuriko’s humorous painted body parts subvert traditional decorative strategy as well as the idea of form. Mishima Kimiyo’s trompe l’oeil sculptures create the illusion that they are not ceramics at all.

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