A rustic single-handled basket stands before me and a wintry spring surrounded by rocks with rough faces dusted in snow. Emerald colored water, possibly melted precipitation tinted by algae, has pooled inside the basket’s basin. This impression of nature is strong; but I am not outside. I’m at Keshiki: The Landscape Within Contemporary Japanese Ceramics from the Brodfuehrer Collection, inside Japan House Gallery in Hollywood.
The apparent basket is a ceramic artwork by Yasuhiro Kohara, displayed before Taijirō Itō’s large-scale photograph of a snowy pond. Kohara’s basket harbors not water, but natural ash glaze. Shininess as of liquid glass seeps from exterior seams of the coarse-hewn receptacle of torn clay whose pale yellow surface glints with tiny jagged protuberances appearing as a thick coating of frost or saline deposits. In fact, these are granules of feldspar that burst from the clay during the firing process, a typical feature of Shigaraki ware, a type of pottery from Japan’s Kansai region.
This show’s title, Keshiki, is a Japanese word that literally translates to “landscape” or “scenery.” With regard to ceramics, keshiki is an aesthetic concept that poetically refers to pottery surfaces’ unique topographies. Just as one might perceive scenic landscape features, one can appreciate the keshiki of textures, colors, and surface configurations on a ceramic artwork.
Culled from the collection of San Diego aesthete Gordon Brodfuehrer, the 63 pieces in Keshiki make a strong argument for contemporary Japanese pottery’s exquisite natural evocations. As with Kohara’s, each artwork imparts a distinct essence of outdoors. Some are more abstractly evocative, while others skew towards definitive representation of landforms, weather, and vegetation.
Most of these ceramics embody functional forms, yet are unquestionably objects of art. Their sculptural structures and painterly surfaces harmoniously unite in conjuring rocky caverns, steep embankments, dusky shorelines, distant mountains, and melting snow in streams. Lustrous glazes flow like rivers, ebb like sea foam, and pool into puddles over vases and plates. Mitsunori Tokusawa’s Sea Spray Breaking on Rock is a platter whose two-dimensional image of a wave is echoed by three-dimensional undulation. From one angle, Shigemasa Higashida’s Waterfall: Lidded Vessel resembles jointed green bamboo; from another, it morphs into a whitish cascade falling from a mossy cliff. Celadon becomes delicate lichen in Seikō Minegishi’s Bowl with Crackled Glaze.
Senses of nature throughout the show are anchored in geographic locales. Wall labels and maps guide visitors from west to east around Japan’s key ceramic regions, with groups of exemplary pieces providing visual testament to the diverse effects of different areas’ clay chemistries, ancient kiln sites, ceramic styles, and traditional techniques. Quotes by Brodfuehrer offer insight into how certain artists may have been influenced by their surrounding terrain. For instance, one can readily comprehend the two disjunctive umber shards in Yukiya Izumita’s Sekakai Vase as a craggy fault inspired by “living in an earthquake-ravaged area”; and imagine rippled drips of jade glaze on a pair of oversized plates as “tree-covered hills and agricultural valleys of Kyushu.”
Perusing each arrangement elicits a mood of meditative serenity akin to the transcendental feeling of strolling through idyllic scenery. It feels not escapist, but fascinating and almost spiritual. Photos by Itō provide vivid context for envisioning scenes evoked by ceramics on nearby plinths. Three red-orange ovals on Hiroyuki Wakimoto’s Long Platter with “Botamochi” Design dramatically repeat the glowing dot in Itō’s background seascape at sunrise. I have never been to Japan, but this show makes me feel that I am there, which heightens my desire to go; for I want to see more. The gallery’s mission to foster appreciation for the island country is effective, even on me, a longtime enthusiast of Japanese culture, history, and films.
Nature constantly reinvents herself; and many of the vessels on display are imbued with a sense of formation, as though they still were coming into being. Satoru Hoshino’s First Snow of Spring is a coil-built stoneware cone whose layers of colored glazes gorgeously evoke white snowfall over delicate new vegetation. One can visualize the artist pressing his fingers into the clay and letting glaze pool inside the indentations. Such pieces’ aura of incipience reminds me of the Nihongi, an early Japanese chronicle recounting creation myths of deities shaping various natural features.
Intriguing anomalies are begotten by chance amid the artists’ masterful craftsmanship. Fortuities of materials and kiln betoken the spirit of nature’s vicissitudes. Wabi-sabi, an aesthetic of raw, understated elegance, pervades asymmetrical forms, variable textures, rough edges, and wobbly silhouettes. Imperfection is beautiful, with each vessel’s uniqueness transcending mundane notions of utility.
Functionality deepens the artwork’s evocative significance. Even refined and transmuted, clay remains earth. Like the earth is walked on and inhabited, these clay pieces are meant to serve as foundations or receptacles. Each work’s meaning is potentially enhanced by the notion that it could be filled or have items placed inside or upon it. One may imagine variations in appearance resulting from different uses of a given piece. Flowers displayed in Sekakai Vase might represent hope blooming in the wake of distress. Dry grass inside the same vase could suggest drought in cracked earth. Moreover, a vessel can perfect its contents. How much more flavorful might a fish taste if eaten from Sea Spray Breaking on Rock?
Few can own such precious ceramic artworks, but all may absorb the ideas they impart. In Western culture, art is more associated with visual luxury than living function. We block out time to visit museums, watch films, or consume other creative media, leaving the rest of our everyday lives impoverished of aesthetic purpose. Per contra, these pieces suggest that art should be lived with and used; beauty should be woven into the fabric of existence. The theory of contemplating keshiki can thus be extended beyond ceramics.
Given the current climate of art dominated by theory and politics, one could easily get away with dismissing this type of work as irrelevant. Such narrow views are partly why it is relevant. Refreshing at a time when nature is ever plowed under, when the very air we breathe feels politicized, when quotidian life seems like a web of meaningless intricacy, the artworks in this exhibition urge us to take a mindful step back in serene reception of potential wonders in our immediate environs.