1 Installation views of Kazunori Hamana, Yuji Ueda, and Otani Workshop at Blum and Poe, Los Angeles.
In Japanese ceramics the literal reality of an object as form, texture, and material is always important but these exist with an abstract or traditional spiritual meaning; the work points beyond itself to a set of aesthetics and values that illuminate it. The viewer immediately sees the beauty of the objects but the concepts and meanings they deal with are like icebergs; mostly submerged beneath the surface. The attitudes and values that produced the work are not so easy to see. This exhibition “Kazunori Hamana, Yuji Ueda, Otani Workshop,” which was on view at Blum and Poe (www.blumandpoe.com) in Los Angeles, California, last fall, relied on contrasting symbolic dichotomies, urban/rural, old/new, traditional/contemporary, crude/sophisticated. It was not necessary to be a connoisseur of Japanese ceramics to admire the work shown, but some knowledge gave the experience of viewing extra depth. The simplicity and directness of the work of Hamana, Otani, and Ueda references mingei (folk art, see Yanagi Setsu’s influential book The Unknown Craftsman) and exhibits the qualities of wabi-sabi (acceptance of transience and imperfection).
It is significant that none of the artists live in a city; Otani (b.1980) and Ueda (b.1975) live in Shigaraki, a traditional pottery center. The American-educated Hamana, (b. 1969) lives in Isumi where he makes a living as a fisherman. Nature is important to all of them, none have been influenced by popular culture, and all think of their work as being its conceptual opposite, an expression of wabi-sabi. They all dig their own clay and fire their work in gas, oil, or wood kilns. They all think of themselves as working in isolation. All the artists are highly aware of where their work sits in relationship to Japanese ceramic history. “I think work from the 1600s is the most beautiful, the work I respect the most,” says Hamana, “I can’t compete, so I try to make my own style.” Otani says his work is influenced by Haniwa tomb figures (from the Kofun period (250–538 CE)), ancient Middle Eastern clay figures, and traditional African masks.
The exhibition revered and contravened traditional, highly philosophical Japanese values; it demonstrated a blurring of traditional creative practices with contemporary methods and values including those held by the curator and exhibition designer, Takashi Murakami. Murakami, who is a patron of this kind of ceramic art, is a conceptual artist and entrepreneur who developed the aesthetic of the Postmodern art movement “Superflat” in the early 2000s. More to the point, he has immersed himself in the Buddhist-based rituals and implements of the tea ceremony. His selections for this exhibition reflected a near obsession with the presence of these values as expressed through objects that echo, transform, and expand them. Murakami assembled over 400 objects, of which only 52 are listed by the gallery. These objects ran the gamut of type and scale—from the smallest inch-long cylinder to larger-than-life figures. None of the work has been seen outside of Japan.
One of the most spectacular aspects of this exhibition was its stunning installation, designed by Murakami with Hamana, Ueda, and Otani. Carefully shaped islands of moss, bark, or stone acted as theatrical settings for the works on view; these natural materials underscored the organic qualities of the sculptures and vessels, emphasizing their rustic imperfection and simplicity. These viewing areas were reminiscent of Japanese rock gardens; there was no single sightline, every section had its own focus. Each arena emphasized the subdued palette used by the artists. Wall-mounted shelving of worn, recycled wood illustrated the principles of wabi-sabi. A metal circle of red-lacquered wood was divided into an uneven grid of shelves into which dozens of objects were set. While each artist had a few pieces of work concentrated in a single area, most areas combined the work of all three. This allowed sameness and difference to be accentuated—the potters share aspects of an overall aesthetic but diverge from it in individual ways. The majority of objects were not identified and the masking of identities emphasized the group’s similarities.
All of the artists exploit the physical properties of clay, glazes, and firing process, focusing on uncontrollable effects produced by particular techniques. The objects are generally handbuilt, thrown on a kick wheel, or made using coil techniques. The surfaces vary from cracked, rough, irregular, and highly fragile to the less common polished and smooth. Mostly they are unglazed or bear the surface, sheen, and coloration that result from wood firing. Some pieces seem extraordinarily contemporary; others look like relics from an anthropological museum. Ueda mixes effervescent materials with the clay to produce a bubbling effect. Otani uses clay slips and occasionally pit-fires. Hamana explains that he makes his glazes by “combining metal, ash, and wood.” Of wood firing, he says, “Fire is nature, and maybe you lose everything, or maybe you get something back.”
3 Kazunori Hamana’s Untitled, 34 in. (87 cm) in diameter, ceramic, 2015. Photo: Toru Kometani. 4 Yuji Ueda’s Untitled, 24 in. (61 cm) in diameter, ceramic, 2015.
Hamana’s casually elegant, frequently over-sized coiled vessels express the coarse nature of the local clay—the surfaces retain each touch. There is tremendous strength in his forms; the delicate, ragged edges of the lips stand in dramatic contrast to their forceful and prominent bellies and shoulders. The larger vessels often bear slip-covered, colored surfaces, which may be covered with calligraphic scribbles. With great simplicity, his wood-fired work employs the effects of flashing and deposits of ash and soot to maximum advantage.
Otani’s coil-built pieces are highly sculptural, depicting the faces and bodies of animals or people. They range from hand-sized to very large and, to a limited extent, embody a principle of Japanese popular culture known as kawaii or cuteness. This is blended with a far more serious aspect; in their simplicity and crudeness they are reminiscent of pan-cultural prehistoric effigies. The humanoid and zoomorphic figures seem to be peering trance-like into space; dignified, simple, and vulnerable.
5 Installation views of Kazunori Hamana, Yuji Ueda, and Otani Workshop at Blum and Poe, Los Angeles. 6 Installation views of Kazunori Hamana, Yuji Ueda, and Otani Workshop at Blum and Poe, Los Angeles. All images copyright of the artists and courtesy of the artists and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo.
Ueda’s techniques are often experimental; he subjects his materials to extremes. His objects look worked over, almost punished, by the forces of heat and flame; the surfaces are cracked, warped, buckled, or splintered. He layers different kinds of clay together, mostly modeling by hand although he also uses plaster molds or cardboard forms. Some of his larger works take up to a month to complete. The objects can seem like artifacts or geological specimens—things that have been inflected by the passage of time and the forces of nature. Ueda is modest about his work. He says, “[I don’t] feel like I could be called either an artist or a craftsman.”
For artists, tradition can either be a dead weight or one option out of many. Contemporary Japanese artists have shown great ingenuity in deflecting, transforming, and reinterpreting their traditions. Japan’s lengthy history of ceramics, from ancient terra-cotta burial figures to everyday domestic objects, is one that encompasses enormous aesthetic changes and innovations. The three artists represented in this exhibition don’t want to be stuck with any particular definitions of tradition. Although the show’s curator references the historic practice that ties Japanese ceramics to the traditional tea ceremony, the three demonstrate the way tradition can only be understood through personal experience, as a merging of the history of their craft with improvisation, experimentation, and refinement. These artist/craftsmen have ingested what they need of Western aesthetic influences, overcome the clichés of “cool” Japan and developed a complex and original response to their cultural heritage.
Note: I am grateful for the assistance of: Hamana, Ueda, Otani, and Takashi Murakami; Kaikai Kiki Gallery, Tokyo (for translation); and Nicoletta Bayer at Blum and Poe Gallery, Los Angeles.
the author Kay Whitney is a writer and sculptor living in Los Angeles, California.