Friday, November 13, 2009

Review: “Soaring Voices: Contemporary Japanese Women Ceramic Artists” at The Crocker Art Museum

So it turns out I am a feminist. It’s an assertion that, coming from a man, can confuse those not versed in the movement. The central tenet of feminism assumes that traditional society has been dominated by gender power dynamics, marked by the overarching male influence. As a result, the feminist perspective suggests that we all should address this imbalance, wherever we might find it, with our eyes open to the problem. Since male-dominated society has evolved various mythologies that consciously or unconsciously exclude female participation, it is up to all of us to admit the bias and seek redress.

As important as this perspective is, sometimes the larger universality of artwork, an artwork for all, can become rather eclipsed by these issues. It calls to mind the relevance of culture to the human experience. Culture is important, and should be respected—albeit within the larger frame of the human experience in which regional logic and tribal variation no longer reveal insights. To put it crudely, even if I do not speak the same language as a native of Borneo, we may share enough genetic heritage to transplant organs without rejection. Culture warps our sense of commonality by overemphasizing these aspects of difference. Sometimes we collectively look to correct a historical balance to the detriment of intensely impressive art (by whomever has realized it, in whatever conditions).

And while I am lodging opinions about the lenses through which our attentions are too often overly-filtered, I would like to interject a discussion of museum wall-text; a well-intended pre-emptive strike on the sacred contract between the viewer and the work of art itself.

To assert my bias, I look to art for inspiration; for the rare moment in which I see something I had never anticipated seeing. This awakens me to impressions and ideas that I hadn’t sufficiently connected (assembled?) before that precise moment. In this gray area of the mind, colors emerge; a holistic perception that is cousin to acupuncture or meditation. Other questions, such as who realized the work, where it comes from, under what conditions and national flag do matter to me—but only after my initial and personal take: the raw, unmitigated experience I expect to enjoy without being bullied by others’ opinions, however valid those opinions may be. I was kvetching on this subject with one of the owners of Art Ellis recently, who noted that he didn’t like artwork to be titled. While I consider that the prerogative of the artist, I know what he means. The introductory physical location of wall-text (and its READ ME NOW authority) displaces the experience (willful ignorance) of encountering art without introduction or hand-holding, and I think of it as a pre-emptive strike on my consciousness.

At the same time, here I am, applying words to art. I do this in a supportive role that can accompany the art—not as something that would supplanting or diminish the power of its independent message. Communication on the subject for those who love art, after all, is not only reasonable but also nearly irresistible, and I am no exception.

The ceramics on display at the Crocker in “Soaring Voices” represent an eclectic set of works by women who came into the field despite the male-dominated tradition of ceramic making in Japan. These pieces bridge a divide whereby:

“. . .during the 1950s when the concept of the studio potter as a creative individual working alone, apart from tradition, was introduced. Including more than 80 objects from vessels to sculpture, this exhibition surveys the accomplishments of 25 leading female figures in contemporary Japanese ceramics.”

The show was breathtaking, and awakened my senses to the range of possibilities available in the medium. Since many artists have contributed work to this show, the exhibit can often feel like a survey of contemporary approaches to ceramics and sculpture in general, from the hyper-poetic abstractions of Ikuko Ando to the pop-art echo of “Hips Parade” by Yuriko Matsuda. Ando’s work lifts the medium out of its utilitarian application the elliptical territory of abstract poetry. Matsuda’s work represents a direct challenge to the male establishment and does so in a pop-art way that also asserts her credentials as a relevant voice in any context. Kimiyo Nishima’s ceramic realizations of newspapers and cardboard boxes are a tour-de-force installation that demonstrates the plasticity of the ceramic medium when combined with skillful silk-screening work. Sachiko Fujino’s “White Time” presents a bulbous white abstraction that renders the fragility and hardiness of the egg into a large form. Its achievement is manifold, and must be taken in by a viewer, ideally, in its presence. The most baroque assertion in the show comes from Kyoko Tokumaru, whose “Hanazakari-Bloom” and “Hatsuga-Germination” painstakingly re-invent the opulence of corals in ceramic form. This piece looks like a shipping nightmare and resulted in awe to all I watched observing it, including myself.

So I return to the Feminist theme: how glorious to have this collection of works by women from Japan; women who broke through the clay ceiling and made their lives in the arts. The Crocker deserves kudos for assembling such a show, and further praise for the curatorial vision that allows these astonishing pieces the breathing room they so thoroughly deserve. “Soaring Voices” proved that one need not be part of the men’s club to produce quality ceramics. The overall quality of the work, in fact, suggests that perhaps fighting against an uncompromising tradition led to innovations have redeemed the otherwise bitter terms of that struggle. The point that this work is by women is noteworthy. It was equally realized by artists: people working at the height of their creative powers.

Photos of artwork, in order:
Ikuko Ando, Factory Chimney, 1996. Stoneware, 10 1/4 x 7 7/8 x 3 1/8 in. Courtesy of International Arts and Artists and the Kanazawa Utatsuyama Crafts Workshop.
Kimiyo Mishima, Installation with Newspaper (1978), CaliFame Lemon with Newspapers (1978), Coca Cola with Bottles (1978), Coca Cola with Newspapers (1978), Citrus and Bottles for Citrus Box (1978), Copy '78-'80 (1978-80), Comic Book ’80 (1980). Stoneware with additional paper posters, dimensions variable. Courtesy of International Arts and Artists. Collection of The Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park, The Museum of Contemporary Ceramic Art. Photo by Greg Flagg.
Kyoko Tokumaru, Germination, 2007. Porcelain, 23 5/8 x 17 11/16 x 11 13/16 in. Courtesy of International Arts and Artists and the Artist.