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

Toshiko Takaezu

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Toshiko Takaezu / #8 Closed Form, 1970-1979, Salt-glazed stoneware, 9 x 8 1/2 inches (22.9 x 21.6 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of the artist, 2007-68-8, © Toshiko Takaezu

When potters are learning essential skills on the wheel, they will often use a gauge – perhaps no more than a chopstick held in place with a lump of clay – to ensure that a series of pieces reach the same height and diameter. And to develop an awareness of the vessel as a 3-dimensional object, and to ensure uniformity of shape, they might use a mirror held in place to reflect the side which is out of view as the piece is being formed. In short, everything the potter does reminds her of the form and volume of the object she is making.

For several decades the American artist Toshiko Takaezu (b. Hawaii 1922, d. Hawaii 2011) taught the skills involved in forming pottery on the wheel, teaching first at the Ceramics Department at the Cleveland Institute of Art in Ohio, and then at Princeton, where she helped to develop the visual art program. She herself had studied at the Cranbrook Academy of Arts in Michigan under the influential Finnish ceramist Maija Grotell – a training which would give her a solid yet experimental approach to the unique challenges and problems of ceramics.

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Toshiko Takaezu throwing a ceramic pot / Toshiko Takaezu papers, 1937-2010. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Wheel formed pottery’s unique challenges are tied to the demands of the medium and the skills involved in handling and forming it. This is a factor which often leads to more subtle shifts and developments over time than might be registered in another artform, such as painting. Another factor which influences the way the potter thinks about her medium is the serial mode of producing vessels on the wheel. In Japanese pottery this repetition, and the natural impulse to try to produce identical objects, was harnessed and made central to the creation of such objects as Chawan – tea bowls thrown off the hump – a method of repeat throwing in which the potter forms a series of vessels one after another from a single large hump of clay on the wheel. In Japanese pottery the subtle inconsistencies and imperfections which necessarily result from any attempt at identical repeat throwing are embraced rather than rejected.

Toshiko Takaezu was maturing as a potter and artist in the 1950s – a period when artists such as Peter Voulkos were exploding the very form of the vessel itself. Voulkos, like Takaezu, was an immensely skilled potter. He took his experiments to a large scale and chopped up and reassembled his colossal pots so that they relinquished all functionality and now looked more like modernist sculptures. To me they recall the wobbly urns and jugs that Braque painted in his patient 1940s reworkings of Cubist still life. Voukos’ rupture with the integrity of the vessel looked dramatic on the scale at which he carried it out and was in tune with concurrent developments in painting. On deeper reflection however, Voulkos’ innovations might equally appear as radical reworkings of the kind of openwork ceramics being produced in Korea in the 5th century AD which often featured ventilated bases and angular protrusions. So, the idea of a complete rupture with tradition in ceramics is one which disregards the knowledge and skill which the serious artist will have acquired in order to be able to make even the slightest shift in what he produces and how it looks.

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Toshiko Takaezu / Enclosed Form, 1980; ceramic wheelthrown white clay vessel form with small hole at apex. Gift of MaryAnne Normandin. Credits: Photo by Hannah Finegold. Rights: All Rights Reserved. Image: https://mimi.pnca.edu/

Takaezu’s rupture with the idea of functionality in ceramics was, on the face of it, subtler than that of Peter Voulkos. At the end of years of wheel forming open ended vessels, manipulating subtle shifts in elegant necks, and experimenting with glazes, Takaezu’s revolutionary break came in the moment she decided to close the form completely, sealing it at the top with a steady and patient hand. It is the kind of shift which one can imagine happening in a single unplanned moment following thousands of near repetitions of thrown pots on the wheel, like waves lapping the shore until one finally covers the last visible rock. It was a radical shift very much in keeping with the artist’s personality. In the same way that there is no distinction made in Japanese culture between the status of a painter and a potter, Takaezu saw no distinction in her life between the activities of pottery, cooking and gardening. To her the attention and patience required by each were essential to ensuring any degree of mastery.

From this tidy gesture of sealing the top of her vessels, the artist proceeded to elaborate on the forms which could be produced now that the functionality of the object had been reduced to a memory. As she became further drawn into the formal properties of the sealed form, she produced objects of larger scale and more ambitious technical challenge. Like Braque’s pots which seem to emerge from the camouflage of the densely patterned canvas, and with a steady, humming energy like that of Giorgio Morandi’s painted arrangements, Toshiko Takaezu’s vessels from this point on were objects pure and simple, with all the mystery and beauty that this implies.

Toshiko Takaezu documentary on YouTube