Shozo Michikawa – SASAMA @ Erskine, Hall & Coe, London / 1 – 24 September 2020

Shozo Michikawa – Natural Ash Sculptural Form, 2020, stoneware, 43 x 16 cm. Image Courtesy Erskine, Hall & Coe, photography by Stuart Burford.

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, Shino Sculptural Form, 2019, stoneware, 19 x 15 cm. Image Courtesy Erskine, Hall & Coe, photography by Stuart Burford.

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.

Stoneware tea bowls by Shozo Michikawa. 9 cm high to 9.5 cm high. Image Courtesy Erskine, Hall & Coe, photography by Stuart Burford.

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.

Shozo Michikawa, Kohiki Sculptural Form, 2020, stoneware, 38.5 x 13.5 cm. Image courtesy Erskine, Hall & Coe, photography by Stuart Burford.

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.)

Shozo Michikawa, Kohiki with Handle, 2020, stoneware, 61 x 27 x 14.5 cm. Image Courtesy Erskine, Hall & Coe, photography by Stuart Burford.

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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KxJrIoEn__o&t=1441s

200 words #29 / Erika Verzutti

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Erika Verzutti – Man Ray com Peixe / Man Ray with Fish, 2019, Bronze, cast aluminium and oil, 70 x 57 x 10 cm, Unique work in a series of 3, © Erika Verzutti. Photo: Eduardo Ortega. Courtesy Fortes D’Aloia & Gabriel, São Paulo/Rio de Janeiro.

The short-lived publication Documents (1929 – 1930) – edited by Georges Bataille – exemplified a shift in much visual art in the early 20th century towards drawing from and combining influences from wildly differing sources both within and far beyond the arts. It is a tendency towards a heterogeneous aesthetic which has become so ubiquitous that nowadays it informs first principles in most art schools from foundation level on. And whilst it lends an air of research facility to the average artist’s studio, it can also, through the collision of dissonant sources, muddy the task of judging the quality of the artwork produced.

In such an open field as the visual arts have become, one difficulty is to consolidate disparate elements skilfully. Erika Verzutti produces painted bronze and papier-mâché wall-mounted reliefs which stretch the territory between painting and sculpture. The surfaces might be pummelled and gouged playfully, then cast in bronze, then painted irreverently in common acrylic. The artist’s process spins 360 degrees from kitchen table craft through industrial fabrication and back without pitting the base and the exalted medium against one another. In Verzutti’s work there is humour but not the ham-fisted variety, allusion without explication, and beauty both superficial and profound.

Carne Sintética @ Fortes D’Aloia & Gabriel

Two previous articles on Erika Verzutti on theglazelondon:

Erika Verzutti @ Andrew Krepps

Erika Verzutti @ Alison Jacques

Remembering Abstract Art – Part 1

Remembering Abstract Art – Part 1 is the first of a series of personal reflections on abstract art.

I remember sitting in the living room one sunny morning, age 11, flicking through a book of Picasso’s late paintings, when I lingered on a colour print of a canvas from October 8, 1968 – Reclining Nude with Necklace. When I think about it now, I feel certain that it was a sunny day, until it occurs to me that, regardless of fact, my memory of those days is invariably sunny. My discovery of that painting also replays in memory as a moment of revelation, as the very sudden moment when abstract art began to make sense to me.

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Nude Woman with Necklace – Pablo Picasso 1881 – 1973, Tate, purchased 1983, Photo Credit: ©Tate, London, 2019.

The painting is, on the face of it, not abstract at all. It is entirely consistent with Picasso’s instinct towards figuration. It was painted at the height of the artist’s final period and is in many ways typical of the loose and large paintings he made in the last years of his life. Some might describe it as the carefree splashings of an artist who felt he had long since earned the right to forego any mediating anxiety about what he put on canvas or how he went about it. For one biographer the last decade of Picasso’s production was such an irrelevance that it was simply omitted. Picasso’s aesthetic instinct was solidly European, and despite the gestural excess of the painting, even at this late stage his hand could not make a single mark which did not in some way represent something. And in Reclining Nude with Necklace, every inch of the canvas is put to work to this end; down to the triangle of pinkish underpainting left exposed to serve as the woman’s supporting left arm, the flecks of impasto which tell us the necklace is reflecting light, or the accumulation of pinkish white here and there denoting highlights across the body. The painting has numerous painterly tricks of the trade which help us conjure a person, a divan, a light source, and a necklace to pick up that light as it falls from left to right.

It is the intensity of Picasso’s disinhibited paintwork however that makes this painting so interesting. Seen from this perspective, the entire canvas in fact works against the artist’s impulse to depict. The woman’s hair, matted against the leaning arm, is an abstract tangle abruptly cut off by the dense blue mass of the background. The crimson wedge of impasto paint representing the shadow between buttock and breast is of equal visual value within the whole to the opaque expanse of the red divan on which the figure rests. The woman’s face is etched with frantic scrawls little different from the ones which identify the upper left-hand side of the canvas and the raised right leg. Despite the sheer excess there is an overall levelling of tonal and spatial values across the canvas. At a certain point the subject disappears and the paint, and nothing but the paint itself, commands our attention. The revelation, to me, was that Picasso’s woman appeared to fluctuate between two states; of being the reclining woman and of being paint pure and simple.

Another more recent and reliable memory – and one which occasionally admits cloud – is from a trip I took to New York in 1999. By that stage I had developed a committed preoccupation with the question of what exactly constitutes an abstraction, and I was constantly on the lookout for what I saw as fine examples of it. My introduction to the Picasso painting had taken root in my memory as a moment in which I had become a believer in abstract art. From then on, I saw abstraction as a condition of perception which could in some way be pinned down and described, and believed that if there was an abstract art, there must consequently be a territory which marked the boundary between that which we perceived as abstract and that which was not.

On a clammy April day in New York, the sky as I now remember it threatening to collapse slowly into the streets from the weight of its greyness, I climbed the stairs to the rooms of Brooke Alexander to see the Helmut Dorner exhibition – Broken Knee. Now my memory records another moment of silent personal revelation as I walk excitedly from painting to painting.

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Helmut Dorner – ddd / From the 1999 exhibition Broken Knee at Brooke Alexander / Image courtesy of Brooke Alexander Editions, New York

If Picasso’s Reclining Woman with Necklace had seemed to me to be an abstract painting despite the evidence, Helmut Dorner’s paintings struck me as the closest thing I had seen to the very definition of abstraction. Where Picasso stumbled from figuration into the territory of what was then still recent American abstract painting through sheer brazenness of paintwork, everything about Dorner’s paintings worked to produce deliberate abstraction.

Best appreciated in the flesh, these paintings have a unique presence which is the result of a combination of details. They are relatively shallow Perspex boxes, mounted on the wall like any canvas. There are sparsely distributed paint marks, blobs, and dribbles – some oil paint, some pigmented resin. The Perspex boxes – in every other way performing a very convincing substitution for the traditional canvas – are missing a side here and there. Through the transparent face of each ‘canvas’ we can see the screws at the top corners on which the piece has been hung. Through the surface also, we can see subtle shadows of the paint marks against the wall, the shadows being duplicated by gallery spotlights and daylight.

Where the Reclining Woman gives the effect of paint mischievously playing around with our impulse to see a figure on a divan, the image constantly breaking down amongst the jostling paint marks, Dorner’s paintings are dedicated spaces within which any single mark floats with its presence uncorrupted by our imaging instinct. So independent are these paint marks that they cast shadows! The Perspex ‘canvas’ is a straight substitute for surfaces such as cotton, linen or wood panel – the kinds of surfaces on which paint has always traditionally laid. But by virtue of its transparency, the Perspex support suggests that painting is nothing more nor less than a conjuring trick – a series of movements choreographed to make us believe something has happened when it hasn’t. And by removing a section of the Perspex at the side here and there, the artist is inviting us to look behind an already transparent surface, as though in anticipation of the familiar question asked of painting across the centuries – ‘How was it done?’.

I’m not sure how long I spent examining those paintings, but I left the gallery floating as loose and happy as the shadow of paint, as I remember.