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Bonnie B. Lee: Breaking The Ceramic Ceiling

At the Joan B Mirviss Gallery’s The French Connection, Japanese women ceramists breathe new life and a welcome strangeness into a traditional artform.
Vessel, Ogawa Machiko. Image from Flickr via sftrajan

By Bonnie B. Lee

Pumpkin, eggshell, bread loaf, bird bone. In a small, hushed room, shelved displays of contemporary ceramic art pieces evoke the familiar features of a woman’s traditional domain: hearth and home. Examine each one closer, however, and the comfortable gives way to the challenging, the unassuming becomes surprising. These are not mere still life objects to decorate the kitchen. It’s noteworthy that the five Japanese ceramic artists featured in The French Connection at the Joan B. Mirviss gallery kept studios in France—it’s also noteworthy that all five are women. Traditionally, Japanese ceramic art was the province of men, who were recognized with master craftsmen status and who trained up (male) apprentices in their field. Women, considered impure, were not even allowed to touch a kiln. Sister, mother, and wife were instead relegated to supporting duties in administering the studios of their esteemed men.

The postwar period ushered in a new Japan that re-examined old assumptions and boundaries. Emboldened by the shifting of roles and priorities, women with a creative impulse and daring streak took off to France, where they trained in painting, ceramics, and design. Unencumbered by the strictures of the male Japanese tradition from which they were long excluded, these women were free to find new expressions in ceramic arts.

Futumara Yoshimi’s pieces give the most immediate visual delight. Her “Vasque” series recall large, warm, pillowy beignets, the white porcelain granules dusting the baked stoneware surface like powdered sugar. That her inspiration comes from nature is evident in the vegetal forms in her “Racines (roots)” and “Vagues de Terre (Earthen Waves)” series. Born in Nagoya, Japan in 1959, Futumara left for Paris in her twenties and currently resides there.

Her vertical flowers are more like the ossified ancestors of the limp blossoms we pluck and discard or thrust in bunches at lovers.

Katsumata Chieko’s pumpkins have the irregularly bulbous yet controlled form of their real-life models, yet her large—too large—ribbed gourds would never be found in any garden. While the blue-black rind cautions the prospective eater more than it invites, a blush of orange-red along the inward curving mouth gives a flash of throbbing, unexpected pleasure. Though initially interested in industrial design, Katsumata trained with France Franck in the 1970s in hand-built vessels. She applies the glaze in layer after later through a cloth overlaid on the surface to hide any evidence of brushstrokes. Her unique coloring technique lends her works an organic feel, as if the beta-carotenes had tinted the form from within.

Each of Sakurai Yasuko’s white porcelain perforated vessels is a virtuosic technical accomplishment. Harnessing scarce resources required to create porcelainware (feldspar and kaolin clay, extremely high kiln temperature), she already sets herself apart as a supremely confident artist. The results are accordingly impressive. Her pure white vessels, called vertical flowers, are more like the ossified ancestors of the limp blossoms we pluck and discard or thrust in bunches at lovers. Playing with the idea of opposites, Yasuko’s perforated structures disrupt assumptions of interior and exterior, of shadow and light, of strength and fragility. Her hollow-boned vessels are in fact more avian than floral. The soaring pieces stretch upwards longing to take flight.

Nagasawa’s works defiantly have no bowls, no offerings, no orifices.

Nagasawa Setsuko’s ceramic works are perhaps the most challenging in this group exhibition, and therefore the most easy to overlook. What is that oversized crayon, that door post? Her seemingly simple geometric forms are focal points to encourage a deeper meditation. Born in Kyoto in 1941, Nagasawa is the oldest of the five women and also the most acclaimed. With just a few basic right angles and curved edges, with soft tonalities of glaze in orange, black, and white, Nagasawa creates a contemplative tool to expand the viewer’s sense of openness and space. The longer one examines the regularities and soft irregularities, the more one’s gaze slips from objective reality to inner experience. Her forms cannot be reduced to mere functionality, though. They are art forms in their own right: large, heavy, and in the best sense, surprisingly unfeminine.

Ogawa Machiko’s works look like potsherds from an exciting archaeological dig: torn mouths, cracked rims, and geometric lines evoke an ancient civilization. By changing the temperature of the kiln while firing, Ogawa reduces overall shrinkage and produces her distinctive aqua-blue glaze, as if the cracked shells of her megafauna eggs had been dipped in a primordial lagoon. Influenced by her time in both France and in West Africa, Ogawa’s works contemplate origin myths and the cycle of creation and destruction. The commanding platter-sized fragment that greets visitors at the gallery door is a study in the color white and its permutations in stoneware, porcelain, and glass.

With a little bit of inspiration, a single generation of artists can break a longstanding tradition of making pretty little things—can step away from the kind of sterile symmetry that is often a hallmark of Japanese aesthetics.

All five of these Japanese ceramists found training, perhaps even refuge, in the schools and studios of France, but they have all been rightfully acknowledged by their native Japan: first, for their talent, and second, for expanding the language of Japanese ceramics at a time of stasis, unorginality, and profound uncertainty. In this New York show, they may finally now gain some deserved recognition in America, where ceramics are still regarded as a craft and not equated on the level of paintings as a fine art.

These artists’ boldness isn’t just confined to the risks they took in their travels abroad, their unconventional careers, or their assertions of individuality. The French Connection demonstrates that, with a little bit of inspiration, a single generation of artists can break a longstanding tradition of making pretty little things—can step away from the kind of sterile symmetry that is often a hallmark of Japanese aesthetics. Ogawa’s “teabowl” is ungainly, overly large, covered in metallic glaze that is inadvisable to eat from. Ceramics don’t have to be functional anymore, either. All five women in fact tend toward the sculptural. Sakurai’s perforated “vases” couldn’t hold a thimbleful of water; Nagasawa’s works defiantly have no bowls, no offerings, no orifices.

For ceramics, they are important voices in considering the possibilities of the form, beyond bowls, pots, and vases. For Japan, they are the kind of inspiration that their venerated tradition needed, a breath of fresh air that could only have come from their women.

The French Connection is showing at Joan B. Mirviss Ltd., in New York through August 3.

Bonnie B. Lee has worked for Tin House, Lapham’s Quarterly, The Nation, The Paris Review, with various nonfiction authors, and at various arts organizations, including the PEN American Center.

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One comment for Bonnie B. Lee: Breaking The Ceramic Ceiling

  1. Comment by Beverly Archer on August 9, 2012 at 10:28 am

    Bonnie Lee’s article has presented me with several unlooked for gifts this morning: the work of five ceramic artists to look up and savor, the reminder that no matter how shackled by tradition, artists can shed those bonds and the delightful knowledge that the expat artist tradition is alive and well in France. What a lovely, positive boost with my morning coffee.

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