If they look a little like domestic props in a cubist interior, then the fleeting similarity between a vase form in a painting by Georges Braque or Juan Gris and the ceramic sculptural forms of Shozo Michikawa is no more than that, an immediate visual impression. As with all ‘It looks a bit like…’ statements, to labour any comparison in this case would be a fruitless indulgence.
The thought does however point to an interesting divergence between painting and ceramics; that is the central importance of technique in the discipline of ceramics. When I talk about Shozo Michikawa’s work I feel more comfortable using the term ceramics rather than pottery. I guess this is a subconscious bias away from functional studio pottery and towards something which might be vainly reaching for the exalted, the rarefied – art basically. Under the slightest scrutiny this bias falls apart because of the fact that in order to produce anything of quality in pottery, whether it is slip-decorated table ware or non-functional gallery ceramics, the amount of practice, failure, recovery, and knowledge required is staggering. When it comes to pottery, you can’t fake it.
Shozo Michikawa was born in 1953 in Hokkaido, Japan. At a certain stage during his initial career in business he took up evening classes in art. It was here that he discovered his passion and talent for pottery. A few years later, Michikawa quit business to devote himself to ceramics. Over the years he learned the skills involved in pottery and some more conventional examples of traditional tea bowls (chawan) are included in the current exhibition at Erskine, Hall & Coe.
Michikawa is an artist who has always shunned a studio pottery affiliation, a system which forms the core of the Japanese pottery scene. He prefers to have the freedom to produce exactly what he wants without having to consider the demands of the client. Free of the limitations of studio pottery, Michikawa has developed a range of unique sculptural series in which he experiments freely and playfully, riffing on traditional Japanese pottery shapes and using classic glazes such as shino and kohiki. The pieces in this show were made during the bi-annual Sasama International Ceramics Festival during a three-day firing in an anagama kiln. Michikawa founded the Sasama International Ceramics Festival in 2011 and the exhibition includes photography of the Sasama region by Yoshinori Seguchi.
Another point of divergence between painting and ceramics is that it is fascinating to watch a talented potter at work – something which is not always the case in painting with its ponderous interludes. This is true for example in the case of Ken Matsuzaki throwing tea bowls off the hump. But where the pleasure of watching tea bowls form, each one masterfully imperfect, may be mesmerising, watching Michikawa turn a dull, dumb block of clay into a dynamic exploding/imploding sculptural form is seat-of-your-pants stuff. (See the link below for a 2018 recording of Michikawa throwing at Leksands folkhögskola Art College in Sweden.)
If the forms at times seem to be frozen in a state of collapse or explosion, then it is because in the process of creating them they come close to doing both. One essential skill to develop as a potter is to do as much as possible of the final shaping of the piece on the wheel to minimise the amount of trimming and altering required later. Michikawa takes this dictum to another level as he slices and gouges the form to create the basis for what will shortly emerge as the final piece, or as he transplants bits of clay from one part of the form to another where they will perhaps be more useful. The artist’s thinking is laid bare and it is a thrilling pleasure to observe him reassess the shape as it develops and to recover from near failure with brutish and excruciating-to-watch interventions. The throwing of the lacerated form is executed by hand, using traditional Japanese forming tools, and by using lengths of timber wedged unceremoniously into the centre of the piece. With the form of the clay prepped in this way, the final shape comes together with a few delicately controlled spins of the wheel. From start to finish there is an economy of process and mastery of technique which are the very same as those which have been employed in Japanese ceramics for centuries.
Watch a fascinating demonstration given by Shozo Michikawa at Leksands folkhögskola (Art College), recorded on July 15, 2018.