Arts & Theater

See jaw-dropping Japanese ceramics that celebrate an ancient art

“Wandering” by Hattori Makiko
“Wandering” by Hattori Makiko Courtesy of Crocker Art Museum

“Into the Fold: Contemporary Japanese Ceramics” at the Crocker Art Museum represents the pinnacle of contemporary Japanese ceramics.

The freely expressed verve of the work celebrates intuitive expression, jaw-dropping refinement, and the skilled symbiosis of form and function that lofts into pure sensation. This stunning exhibition originated at the Harn Museum of Art, University of Florida, and was curated from the noted Carol and Jeffrey Horvitz Collection. The Crocker exhibit is a distillation of the original. Hitting the high points, it was beautifully and succinctly curated by Amelia Kit-Yiu Chau, the Crocker’s adjunct curator of Asian art.

Ceramic art has an ancient history in Japan, dating to the Neolithic period. Honing and developing the craft, Japanese ceramists embraced influences from other cultures and nations to enrich their practices and traditions. Walking through the installation, echoes of diverse cultures and impulses whisper and resonate in the 41 pieces on view.

Some of Japan’s greatest 20th- and 21st-century artists are represented. Their manipulation of clay seems as natural as breathing, as if body, breathing and clay become a single living entity.

“These are not what you would consider ‘typical’ ceramics,” notes Kit-Yiu Chau. “These works open our eyes to what’s possible in working in pottery and porcelain, as we have an opportunity to witness bold techniques and creations.”

Works by internationally recognized female artists are given special emphasis. This is worthy of note because ceramic artists traditionally emerged from apprenticeships, but the apprenticeships were not open to women. In the long history of Japanese ceramics it was not until after World War II, when women went to universities and abroad, that women made their important and influential contributions that have significantly expanded the field.

The exhibition begins with a selection of work by artists known as Living National Treasures. These artists retrieved traditional ceramic practices from the excavation of historic kiln sites and are dedicated to passing these practices on to future generations.

The folk art movement known as Mingei was created in response to early 20th-century industrialization, and it valued the tenets of self-expression, utility and modest objects of daily life. Hamada Shoji (1894-1978) was a founding member. His 1974 stoneware platter is splattered with dark umber glaze, loose and muscular as American abstract expressionist painter, Jackson Pollock. The site of Hamada Shoji’s kiln and residence is the center of Mingei, which continues to flourish in contemporary Japan.

Contemporary work of note is “Quickening A” (1990), a black cube of bulging inlaid glazed stoneware by Hayashi Yasuo. Like the eternally confounding contours of the infamous “Slant Step,” Hayashi Yasuo’s surrealistic piece hints at some unknowable utility. “Finger on the Ear (Mimi Ni Yubi)” (1990) by Hoshino Satoru is a wall-mounted plank of carbon-impregnated earthenware. It’s a black slab punched and pummeled by his fingers, a work of unmitigated expression, extraordinary resonance and power. It’s a pity it is not given a more prominent place in the exhibition.

At odds with the muscularity of Hoshino Satoru is the painstaking work of Hattori Makiko. Born in 1984, she is the youngest artist in the exhibition. Assigned the task of creating 100 possible ceramic forms by her instructor, she invented a form of embellishment she calls “frilled.” “Wandering (Samayou)” (2012) is a swirling globular form of porcelaneous stoneware over which she has individually attached thousands of tiny slivers of flattened clay fragments. These fragments evoke fins fluttering off living coral. Time spent on work doesn’t automatically make it worthy; it can even be its deathtrap. But the meticulous application of these paper-thin fragments imbues the work with palpitating life.

Into the Fold

When: Through May 7; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday and Friday-Sunday; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursdays, closed Mondays.

Where: Crocker Art Museum, 216 O St., Sacramento

Cost: $5-$10, free for members or children under 6;

Information: 916-808-7000 ; www.crockerart.org

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