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 #26 / Shoji Hamada

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Shoji Hamada – Bowl / 13 x 21.5cm / private collection UK / image – Michael Harvey, Oxford Ceramics

I have long enjoyed the variously attributed quote that observes – ‘Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.’ Its pithy truth about the perpetual failure of the intellect to come up with anything meaningful to say about an artwork occurs to me when I hear many artists try to speak about their work. Potters though, seem in general to suffer from no such trauma of expression. A potter will mention specifics – clay bodies, glaze recipes, firing ranges and multiple failures leading to modest successes. I like to think that this concentration on the medium and the skills involved in pottery allows for slow and meaningful innovation.

In 1953 ceramic artists Shoji Hamada and Bernard Leach delivered a lecture tour across the US. The tour contributed to the shift in American pottery from being a staid and functional craft to an artform. At the same time in the States, Anni Albers, through textile weaving, was showing a healthy disregard for any debate around functionality and art. For Albers, coming from the Bauhaus, and for Hamada, one of the leading potters of the Mingei movement in Japan, there had never been any question of a distinction between craft and art – enough said.

Shoji Hamada at work – YouTube video

The Mingei Film Archive Project – watch

Shoji Hamada current exhibition at Leach Pottery

Shoji Hamada at Oxford Ceramics

Ryuji Tanaka @ Simon Lee London from 23/06 to 25/08 and New York from 13/09 to 28/10, 2017

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Ryuji Tanaka, Nature ’89, 1989, Mineral pigment on panel, other materials 60.7 x 72.6 cm (23 7/8 x 28 5/8 in.) Courtesy of the artist and Simon Lee Gallery, London / New York 

It may seem odd that, no sooner had so many artists in the latter half of the nineteenth century begun to successfully assert their independence from established art institutions, such as the Beaux-Arts in France, than there was a rush to form new groupings, to gather together under new rules and with new criteria for entry. Many artists in subsequent generations would come together to form alternative collectives – the artistic movements with which we are familiar such as Dada and the Surrealists, and other later movements which are less well known, such as COBRA and Gutai. So many of these collectives were underpinned by manifestoes in which, ironically, one variety or other of artistic independence was declaimed. But they were often loosely held together communities of thought and any efforts to keep all participants on the same page failed. By the 1970s, the need for artists to identify collectively under a shared set of written principles had become the exception.

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Ryuji Tanaka, installation view of exhibition at Simon Lee Gallery London, image courtesy Simon Lee Gallery London, 2017

The Japanese group of artists known collectively as Gutai Bijutsu Kyokai (Concrete Art Group – formed in 1954 by Jiro Yoshihara ) cited in their manifesto an artistic kinship with certain Abstract Expressionists who were working almost contemporaneously – most notably Jackson Pollock. What the Gutai artists saw in Pollock was a singular emphasis on paint itself – what they recognised as “the loud outcry of the material” – at the expense of any imagistic possibilities in the medium that the artist might be tempted, by force of habit, to explore. The hyper-individualism in American art which was emerging through the Abstract Expressionists, would reach its accelerated apotheosis in the 1980s – an acceleration which would see the focus move away from painting.

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