I consider myself fortunate when a show such as this lands in my backyard. I live within walking distance of the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) where New Forms New Voices, Japanese Ceramics from the Gitter-Yelen Collection was on view last spring. The exhibition showcased a largely formalistic collection, with the majority of the works spanning the early 2000s. Privilege and a discerning eye have led to 40 years of collecting objects that are much loved and revered by Kurt and Alice Gitter-Yelen. As with most collectors, the relationships that have developed with the artists are reflected in the objects they chose to live with.
NOMA considers guest curator Joe Earle as one of the foremost authorities on contemporary Japanese ceramics and his resumé supports this. First published in the 1980s, Earle has had a long engagement with the subject. He explains, “Japan’s ceramic culture is among the oldest in the world, dating back some 15,000 years—ceramics are deeply embedded in Japanese culture.” He cites several distinguishing features of Japanese ceramics, including a “rootedness in technique and in clay, unmatched technical refinement, and an absolute ‘rightness’ of the relationship between form and decoration.”
The 82 works by the 40 artists chosen for the exhibition reflect the couple’s distinct vision and taste. The show was thematic rather than chronological, accompanied by historical examples utilized as an introduction to the collection and framing device. Five themes served as an index for the exhibition: inspired by ancient kilns; hewn from earth, inspired by nature; embracing the avant garde; masters of porcelain; and a love of decoration.
Inspired by Ancient Kilns
The exhibition opened with representations from the 4th–14th centuries, including a Haji earthenware jar (produced from the 4th–11th century) and a Shigaraki food storage jar (14th–16th century) made of stoneware with natural ash glazes. These handbuilt, historical examples also serve as inspiration for the post-war potters included in this grouping.
Stoneware paired with natural-ash glazes are indicative of Japanese aesthetics—as is the focus on form and surface with equal attention. Textural Shigaraki clay, although difficult to control, reveals a type of magic in the firing process. Expansive, tactile surfaces capture the desired characteristics of ash glazes. You can almost feel the life of the clay through the process of creation. The historical kiln sites are in continued use by artistic choice, not through a hereditary lineage of male potters.
Contemporary artists who are inspired by ancient kilns include Ryuichi Kakurezaki (b. 1950). He has reached prolific status in the tradition of Bizen ware (the grayish stoneware that is characteristic of the region). It often reveals the open structure of the clay body. His concepts are geometric in form and approach. Ash glazes spill over vessels, trays, and large platters.
Shiro Tsujimura (b. 1947), who also draws on historical kilns and styles in his work, is largely self-taught, creating large wood-fired platters reminiscent of Iga wares in glaze application. The manipulation of his kiln results in controlled accidents captured on the surface of large jars and flower vases.
Kazuhiko Miwa (b. 1951) studied with Peter Volkous and follows the Hagi ware tradition, located west of Bizen (which is where he was born), using a viscous white glaze that encapsulates traditional forms for flower arrangements.
Hewn from the Earth, Inspired by Nature
“Hewn from the Earth, Inspired by Nature” was the largest section of the exhibition, with artists looking to geological striations and formations in nature for source material. With largely earth-tone color palettes, these subtle forms are closely related to natural phenomena in form and surface treatment. Environmental forces including earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tectonic shifts are emulated in the firing process, in turn pushing the limits of clay.
Shoko Koike (b. 1943), whose work references sea life—illustrating where sky and water meet—is recognized as one of the earliest female studio potters from Japan. She is also one of the first women to gain the respect of fellow Japanese potters, and subsequently paved the way to success for other women in the field. The Japanese traditional lineage of potters was once a hereditary system dictated by the male line.
Machiko Ogawa (b. 1946) is an obvious favorite of the collectors and, perhaps, the guest curator. She had the largest number of works on display in the exhibition. The Lunar Fragment Series (2014), highlights fractured forms and unglazed surfaces. The reflective pools or chunks of silica glass read as minerals or gemstones, grown at depths unattainable for humans. Ogawa’s symbiotic relationship with the clay material is a delight for both viewer and critic.
Akiyama Yo (b. 1953) pushes his clay body to the extremes. He exploits drying times with a blow torch, resulting in the cracking open of wheel-thrown rings on the exterior of massive forms. Iron filings are inserted into the clay substrate as further manipulation of surface and firing process. Metavoid 8 (2005), quietly evokes the inner workings of the earth.
Embracing the Avant Garde
The section of the exhibition titled “Embracing the Avant Garde” showcased a generation of potters working in Kyoto and fits chronologically after World War II. These 20th-century artists re-examined the traditional approach to clay by restricting the standards of functionality in favor of sculptural forms. Ideologically, they promoted ceramics as anti-vessel.
Sodeisha, an avant-garde Japanese ceramics group (1948–1998) was formed during the post-war era. While the works vary greatly in form and style within the group, their sources for inspiration include Abstract Expressionism and the work of Jean Arp, Constantin Brancusi, Paul Klee, and Joan Miró—reflecting an international conversation. Founding members Osamu Suzuki and Hiraku Yamada engaged in political and sociological discourse through the dismantling of structures within Japanese traditions. The Sodeisha group (including Junkichi Kumakura and Kazuo Yagi) demonstrates a creative autonomy that is paired with an avoidance of convention and tradition. Many of the slab-built forms eliminate any physical reference to the vessel and contain no openings.
Masters of Porcelain
The work in porcelain was a sharp contrast to the rest of the exhibition. These eight artists are referred to as the stars of the current Japanese ceramics scene. It is quite easy to become enamored with paper-thin forms bathed in the palest of blue, diaphanous glazes. Satoshi Kino (b. 1987) is the youngest artist in the exhibition. He uses the wheel to throw long, flowing ribbons of clay to which he applies the finest layer of Seiji glaze (what we refer to as the translucent blue-green celadon).
Sueharu Fukami (b. 1947) constructs wing-like sculptures that are quintessentially Japanese—the perfection of form and glaze through aerodynamic forms, as seen in Sky III (2002).
Tsubusa Kato (b. 1962) imports New Zealand porcelain to cover with oozing, dripping, glassy glazes. Rough-hewn porcelain structures such as Large Standing Form (2014), support mounds of glaze that form at the foot of his vases.
A Love of Decoration
The work exhibited in this final grouping is at radically different ends—imperfection within a free and uncontrolled process versus formalist discipline. Surface treatment is explored through various methods of adornment, coloring, and incising. This theme has the least continuity, which is to be expected, as there are myriad approaches to decoration. An incredible technique invented by Eiko Kishi (b. 1948), is Saiseki-zogan or colored-inlay. Eiko fills the clay surface with thousands of small holes, which are then painted with colored-slip inlays. She is inspired by Noh theater and its elaborate costumes that serve as sculptural abstractions.
A personal standout in this grouping is Ryoji Koie (b. 1938) an anti-war activist from the 1960s generation. Koie’s large, oribe-style jar (2004, glazed with a copper-green hue that is 4 centuries old), serves as a critique of what he considers to be superficial—the notion of perfection.
Whether referring to vessel traditions or purely sculptural forms, these works are unified by unparalleled technological and artistic achievements. I would argue that in an attempt to subvert the ideals of flawless beauty, most artists in this exhibition achieved just that—a natural and unforced relationship between maker and material.
The exhibition was accompanied by a full-color, 94-page catalog, published by NOMA. The catalog features an interview with Kurt Gitter and Alice Yelen-Gitter on the formation of the collection, as well an essay and artists’ biographies by Joe Earle.
the author Elizabeth Kozlowski is an independent curator, craft scholar, and editor of Surface Design magazine. Learn more at www.surfacedesign.org.