Bridging American and Japanese Ceramics

Lisa Hammond’s sake bottle and sake cup, to 6 in. (15 cm) in height, stoneware.

Many American potters tend to romanticize Japanese ceramics,  and are most familiar with its wood-fired aesthetics and traditions, its connection to Zen Buddhism and the Japanese Tea Ceremony, a highly ritualized ceremony where matcha (a green tea) is prepared and served.

Sharing a drink is an important social ritual in any culture. From the formality of toasting a bride and groom to the simple act of sharing a beer—people understand the significance. Even the use of specialized serving vessels and cups bridges cultures. Many people own fine-cut crystal bottles and glasses they use when serving “the good stuff.” In Japan the vessels reserved for special use are often made of clay. The Lacoste Gallery (www.lacostegallery.com), in Concord, Massachusetts, presented “Contemporary Sake Ware: with Japanese and Western Artists,” an exhibition of
over 21 artists who make bottles (tokkuri) and cups (sakazuki) used to serve sake. The exhibition’s organizer, Jeff Shapiro, stated, “The show includes a wide range of form and firings; from wood-fired to highly decorated surfaces, as well as innovative approaches to design.” Curiously, the exhibition included an eclectic collection of pieces that fit within narrow aesthetic parameters.

Lucien Koonce’s tokkuri, 5½ in. (14 cm) in height, stoneware, 2015.

Ryuichi Kakurezaki’s sake bottle, 6 in. (15 cm) in height, stoneware, 2015. All photos: George Bouret.

There were several areas where the work actually occupied a limited segment of formal possibilities. The most obvious was the roughness of the work that permeated the exhibition. Two artists whose works were on the periphery of the exhibition—Robert Fornell and Betsy Williams—illustrate how important adding a wobble or warp is. The most sculptural of Fornell and Williams’ pieces in the exhibition were geometric forms altered to make pouring vessels. They both confronted the viewer with an almost gratuitous lack of refinement in their pieces. Fornell’s pink angle guinomi—two narrow serving vessels decorated with black and flashing pink glaze—look like roughed up pieces made by Ron Nagle. Williams seems to have intentionally created bumps and warps in her dachibin sake server and guinomi.

The other end of the groupings comprised several pieces that were almost symphonically inelegant. Inayoshi Osamu’s sake bottle, a small square bottle with a surface composed of bare white clay with runny green and brown glazes, displayed an almost complete absence of control. The piece seemed like it was used like a Hacky Sack and kicked directly into a wood kiln.

Suzuki Goro’s kobiki sake bottle, 5 in. (13 cm) in height, stoneware, 2015.

Koichiro Isezaki’s sake bottle, 7 in. (18 cm) in height, stoneware, 2015.

Highlighting the accidental nature of Osamu’s forms were Ryuichi Kakurezaki’s rough-hewn pieces. Almost every aspect of his Bizen sake bottle seemed designed to jar the viewer’s attention. From his use of a concave shoulder and the exaggerated ridges, to the colors ranging from oily brown to gray-drab, or the way only the edges of the feet touch the ground—Kakurezaki challenged the viewer’s idea of what a finished piece should look like.

Kakurezaki’s work also reflected what is a fairly narrow color palette used by the artists in the exhibition. With the exception of a few slashes of cobalt, some pools and drips of coke-bottle green, and some white areas, the exhibition is permeated with tans, browns, oranges, blacks, and various tints of gray. The best artists integrated the viewers’ reactions to their use of color as an element of their work. Suzuki Goro, who creates primitive drawings that mimic the look of cave paintings to decorate his work, amazed with his ability to provoke different emotions through minor differences in the colors used, including the use of coal black and opaque white. Combined, the images and sharply contrasting hues on his kobiki sake bottle create a kind of graphic quality. The sweeps of black almost read as much a character as an image. The orange flashing on his hai shino sake cup generates a sense of age—as if the piece has been handled for years. This accents the brushwork, which Goro creates without any sense of pretense. The result is a design that feels rendered at the cusp of human development. The brush strokes almost evolve on their own on the piece, from randomly abstract markings to representative lines.

The exhibition was most eclectic in how the bottles informed their usage. Sharing a drink with someone can be an extremely formal or intimate occasion. The works included in the exhibition reflect both. Noriyuki Yamamoto flutes many of his pieces. This minor decorative addition creates a certain order. Williams, Goro, Ron Hand and Jun Isezaki’s works include decoration in the form of brushwork, and even these most casual lines create a sense of formal arrangement.

The exhibition also included many works that, like Kakurezaki and Osamu’s work, were very coarse and unrefined. Even within this subset of the whole group, there are some significant variations. The roughness of Shapiro, Shigemasa Higashida, and Kai Tsujimura’s work has a deliberateness to it that created a sense of formality—like a drink shared between colleagues more than friends. The exhibition included several artists whose pieces are almost indulgently primitive. Lucien Koonce infuses so many wobbles in his tokuris and guinomi that the pieces seemed to wiggle on the pedestals. Goro, and Kakurezaki exaggerate the roughness of their work to create a playful quality.

Inayoshi Osamu’s purple sake bottle with gold dots, 5½ in. (14 cm) in height, stoneware, 2015.

Yui Tsujimura’s cup, 4 in. (10 cm) in length, stoneware, 2015.

Rob Fornell’s pink angled katakuchi, 4 in. (10 cm) in width, stoneware, 2015.

The most interesting inclusion in the exhibition were the pieces that demanded a certain amount of attentiveness from the viewer/user. Willi Singleton included a summer cup among his other work. To use this shallow and wide bowl, the user would need to lay the form against their lips and sip the contents without tilting it too much, which creates a tremendous amount of awareness and intimacy between the server and the drinker. Koichiro Isezaki created the same sense of intimacy with pieces far more comfortably cradled in the palm rather than held with the fingers.

Shapiro’s decision to include work within a narrow aesthetic band highlighted the importance of subtlety. There are infinite reasons why two people would share a drink. The act reflects and informs the relationship between the people in the relationship. While the works selected for Contemporary Sake Ware may have had a narrow aesthetic range—as a collection viewed together, it expressed a depth of exploration within that range.

the author Anthony Merino works out of Adams, Massachusetts. The exhibition he curated, “Domestic Mysteries” will open at The New Taipei Yingge Museum of Ceramics in August 2017.

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