PAIRINGS, Taming the Elements: Contemporary Japanese Prints and Ceramics

December 23rd, 2013  |  Published in *, December 2013

Taming the Elements: Contemporary Japanese Prints and Ceramics

Cincinnati Art Museum, October 12, 2-13 – January 5, 2014

By Fran Watson

This just may be the perfect meld of mediums. Cool , exciting ceramics perform clay- defying acrobatics in successful combinations with 20th century Japanese woodcuts whose labor intensive prints match for a tempo of amazement. In recent years the little balcony area on the second floor has been the scene of more excitement than any other location at CAM, particularly for those of us who are partial to fine prints. “Elements” mixes Japanese prints from the Howard and Caroline Porter collections with ceramic “mingel” (“hand-crafted art for ordinary people”) lent by Jeffrey and Carol Horvitz into a balanced visual feast. “Ordinary” is far from the description for this display. Perfectly presented in arrangements of compatible artistic elements, presentation of this work is art in itself. Curator Kristen Spangenberg and Curator of Decorative Arts, Amy Dehan outdid themselves in the crisp, elegance of “Taming the Elements”. Three-sided enclosures open out on the balcony, each containing ceramic and print works which bear similarities, planned to capture more than passing glances for works individually and as a grouping.

Japanese woodcuts bring to mind the ukiyo-e of graceful ladies and fierce warrors, printed in rainbows of watercolor of earlier centuries. Post-WWII Japan , though, plowed into contemporary art with muscle. The prints became bigger, more aggressive,and more abstract. Those printing inks began to hint at layers of black and patterns of soft earth-tones that whispered of subtle energy and treated traditional subjects with deeper meaning . Ceramics partnered with them match in temperament and energy, often adding the immediacy of gesture.

The aesthetics of both art forms appear to be marching along to the same tune; originality anchored by a bass line of excellence, making it nearly impossible to rank any piece shown above another. My prejudice is pro-Ida Shoichi through personal history. He visited Northern Kentucky University’s print department when I was studying there. I had never heard of him, but after seeing his work, I have become a solid fan. Shoichi has three pieces in this exhibit, two of which are based on the most delicate manipulations of tonalities imaginable. They are “Raindrops – Surface is the Between” and “The Surface is Between No.E-25”, titles which become appropriate upon examination. In the manipulations of the print image, it is, indeed, difficult to determine a surface in the direct manner of looking. “Raindrops” spot a gray background with delicate variations of slightly darker gray, pulling the viewer into them by the mysterious camouflage, and the deep black pitted “No. E-25” opens another dialogue determining its surface. A jagged edge frames the print, spattered with random tiny white spaces, and you, dear visitor, decide what is in there.

The third Shoichi print, “Accident”, printed in 1968, seems to reflect the influence of hard edge painting, which was part of America’s artistic revolution. Sharp points and razor-cut edges topping wavy symmetrical lines of muted color are as far from the the two previous descriptions as possible. It’s definite deja vu implications are hard to connect to the subtlety I’ve grown to expect from this artist. .

None of these printmakers produce obvious images. Levels of sophistication are way up there requiring more than a passing glance to glean their hidden treasures. Miracles exist in the composition of a single rock’s placement in a Zen garden. “Stone Garden” by Hashimoto Okiie is enhanced by dark rock containing color elements of rust and very dark gray. Their discovery elevates the surrounding marks to more than simply sand. Swirls of grainy patterns, carved with infinite care, accomplish backgrounds for the startling rocks that deserve applause of their own. In another, “Ryoan-ji Garden” by Maeda Masao, the velvety black rock casts a less intense shadow, intimating an element of time as well as more complex composition.

Most of the corners contain two prints and a plinth holding a ceramic form. Where the simplest prints were hung, the simplest ceramic accompanied it. One of the most successful combinations greeted visitors at the south entrance to the balcony. Here particular attention is given to the earthy feeling of both the large, pebble-surfaced vessel, “Tsubo”, Tsuimura Kai and its companion in print,“Exploding Star”, Fukita Fumiaki. Natural ash glaze produced the highly textured surface over a base of soft terra cotta and gray. An orangy-brown color dominated the print and its woodcut marks echo the ash texture of the vessel.

The rarity of color in the exhibit made color prints and ceramics more difficult to comfortably match. Two others that worked beautifully were a blue corner featuring two ghostly blue prints and a large shell-like form. A location nearby combines linear incisions employed in the two media. Both prints in this small area were by the same artist, Kinoshita Tomio. “Masks” and”“ Grey Men” featured block figures carved in straight lines which converged to imply features. The two ceramics accompanying them were covered with complicated cuts that could not have more perfectly carried out the theme of the wall pieces. In yet another color corner deep, viscous, embossed red in Maki Haku’s print, “Poem 71-25 (Pasture)” sprawls its shining calligraphy across a matte black background dramatically: its three-dimensional partner, the gracefully folded and curved “Momiji no zu (View of Maple Leaves)” compliments it’s printed neighbor with the fiery hues of autumn.

Each corner of “Elements” portrays so much more than simply the stated pieces. They speak to each other, allowing the visitor to better understand their qualities as both single entities and elements of an elegant combined aesthetic.

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