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Gem stones
Earth into air, fire into rock in 'Contemporary Clay'
"Contemporary Clay: Japanese Ceramics for the New Century" | At the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, through July 9

Sometimes crusty and uneven as a horned toad’s skin, sometimes squat as a toadstool, sometimes misshapen and irregular as potholes on a city street, the MFA’s "Contemporary Clay: Japanese Ceramics for the New Century" is nevertheless pervaded by an air of monumental dignity. Commingled with the craggy vases and the platters that resemble slabs of roughly painted rock are their opposites: porcelain boxes so delicate and refined, they seem fit to hold only vapor; nesting bowls that begin as elegant troughs and then reduce in size to tea bowls, the smallest being no bigger than a fruit fly. Between those extremes of apparently random, found, natural forms and the meticulously hand-hewn is where most of the ceramic artists in "Contemporary Clay" weigh in. No matter what its style, each work is marked by a reverence for tradition and artistry that also allows for idiosyncratic expression.

A case in point is Kaneshige Kôsuke, the third son of a National Living Treasure of Japan, Kaneshige Toyo (also a ceramic artist and one credited for reinventing one of the two ceramic styles indigenous to Japan), whose contribution resembles a throw blanket. Saint’s Garments looks like a thick brown shawl that’s been carefully but not compulsively folded over a low-slung riser, two parts earth and one part garment. Its solidity is undeniable, but so too is its suggestion of an interior with the potential to stretch itself out, the way a chambered nautilus implies an inner surface that exceeds its outermost shell.

Far more orchestrated but still evoking the pliancy of fabric — in this case rope — is Sakiyama Takayuki’s thick, striated, light-brown 2004 vessel Listening to the Waves. Imagine a two-foot-tall ball of twine that’s been reshaped and ossified. That the work also can function as a vessel is almost beside the point; a non-hollow interior would make little difference to the appeal of its undulating form, that of a hefty stoneware basket that swells from a thick, circular base, opening to an elliptical aperture at its summit.

The natural world’s own forms pose the greatest challenge to artists working in clay. Whether to renounce, refine, or replicate what you see in nature is the question. Koike Shôko draws directly and brilliantly on natural formations, in her case marine life. Her 1999 Shell Vessel could have been lifted from a Caribbean coral reef. Closer in appearance to rock than to shell, the 12x9 vessel presents a series of wavy, irregularly edged but regularly paced crenellations — each hardened wave looks like a mature tree-ear mushroom — that swirl in unison and taper from a wide upper region to a sudden, relatively narrow base. For all its mass and stasis and hardness, were you to come upon Shôko’s vessel while scuba diving, you wouldn’t be surprised to see it awkwardly swim away — its surface both expresses and camouflages its dynamism.

Tsujimura Shirô takes inspiration from Earth’s mountains. His 2004 Iga-Ware Faceted Flower Vase looks like a two-foot tall cylinder of igneous rock that might have been quarried with a jackhammer — or else it’s an ancient, eroded cinder block. The catalogue informs us that the piece is almost a solid block of Shigaraki clay, and looking at its deep, random crevices and its rough yet subtly hued surface, you wouldn’t think it was capable of holding anything, let alone flowers and water. Yet its sandpaper texture is offset by a rich luminosity; perhaps more than any other work in this exhibit, Shirô’s vase holds onto the fire from which it was made.

Miyashita Zenji’s sculptures, on the other hand, suggest mountain vistas. His 1999 Ocean Cube is a meticulously wrought square vessel (hand-shaped rather than thrown on a wheel) with a surface decoration of variously colored clay. Its base sports ridged outlines of successive hillocks of black and cobalt blue, its center an upward progression of dark greens. The upper quadrant begins in dark brown that gives way to a sparkling sand color that edges the opening at the top. From bottom to top the piece grows lighter and airier, as if your eye were traveling from the Earth’s core to the sun. And each change in color corresponds with a slight rise on the surface, as if it were layers of construction paper. To see Ocean Cube is to feel you’re looking across a mountain range; the eye is transported to unknown distances.

No less breathtaking is Takiguchi Kazuo’s dark, bulbous, 1997 work A428, which resembles an abstracted animal’s head. Did the sharp hole torn into its top not reveal the actual thinness of the clay, you would assume it’s weighty and solid. One of Katsumata Chieko’s pieces looks like an acorn squash fashioned from ancient glass; another is like a wedge of sun-struck coral. Wada Morihiro brings a Cubist sensibility to his geometrically patterned vessels; Matsuzaki Ken reinvigorates the mingei tradition of utilitarian folk craft.

At the other end of the spectrum are those artists whose use of clay, both in its shape and in the glaze of its surface, gives no hint of the earthiness of the original material. Fukami Sueharu’s three small (approximately 7x5x5) porcelain boxes in a sleek, pale aquamarine glaze appear almost prayerful, architectural meditations on the idea of containment. The lid of one box sports a sharp crest down its center like the fin of a fish cutting water. Another lid slopes from back to front between two raised arms suggesting a miniature glass armchair. The lid of the third box rises wave-like to a point in one corner as if it were in the act of lifting itself. Sueharu’s other contribution, his 2000 Clear: Ceramic Tube, is a 22-inch-tall hollow cylinder in the same translucent porcelain. A crescent-moon shape acts as a handle that begins at the base and extends knife-like beyond the open space at the top. The effect is to make the jarring appear harmonious — a sharp tooth occupies the area where you feel invited to place your lips to drink.

Two of Yagi Akira’s three contributions are worked in the same blue-green glaze in porcelain. The tallest of his Faceted Covered Vessels with Pale Blue Glaze stands at nine inches, the other two are slightly lower, and each is capped by a miniature, cork-shaped lid. Identical in shape, the three vessels twist from their centers like upright ribbons; the resulting forms resemble dancers swirling beneath frozen costumes. Akira’s 10 Nesting Covered Boxes, on the other hand, delight in their immobility. Although elliptical in shape, they seem like upright, rounded-off cubes with their bases and summits refusing to taper like the eggs they otherwise resemble.

Issue Date: January 6 - 12, 2006
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