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Gallery Review | ‘Fired Earth, Woven Bamboo’ explores Japanese ceramics

Published: Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Updated: Tuesday, February 4, 2014 06:02

In the Arts of East Asia, Oceania and Africa wing of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), a relatively new exhibit examines the development of contemporary Japanese pottery and weaving techniques. “Fired Earth, Woven Bamboo” celebrates new developments in ceramics and bamboo art that began in Japan in the 1950s. The works featured throughout the gallery are from the Snider Collection — a recent gift to the MFA from Stanley and Mary Ann Snider, who spent 40 years collecting contemporary Japanese ceramics and bamboo creations.

The exhibit is arranged in a series of rings, with the center glass case displaying examples of traditional Japanese ceramics and bamboo baskets. Here, visitors can see several works by artists from the beginning of this movement — these pieces all have utilitarian uses and rather simple forms. These artists had only just begun to consider themselves more than craftsmen: an increasing interest in personal expression and individuality — a byproduct of the Western art movements — explained their newly found desire to express creativity. 

The first example of this focus on uniqueness is “Basket with bamboo-root handle,” made by Maeda Chikubosai during the Showa era in the 1930s. Perhaps the most traditional piece in the entire collection, the basket is wide and has a handle made from an actual bamboo-root that has been bent and shaped into a hyperbola. This center display also houses several simple plates and ceramic boxes, though these still demonstrate evidence of individual design and expression — with embellishments like grapes decoratively painted on a lid and incised patterns adorning the plates.

The incredible sculptural forms positioned at the front of the gallery showcase the dramatic change bamboo art has undergone in the present day. Before focusing on these, however, the viewer can watch a short video of masters Kishi Eiko and Nagakura Ken’ichi. Seeing the work in action electrifies the exhibit for museum-goers, allowing them to imagine the formation of the exhibit’s pieces from simple rock and bamboo.

Returning to the fantastic bamboo creations made by today’s artists, visitors can see the drastic changes that have occurred in this art form’s style and technique. “Red Flame” (2007) by Morigami Jin — with a black to red ombré coloration on a skeletal, almost seaweed-like basket — is particularly striking. Wavy lines move across the body of the work, creating a sense of movement that evokes the image of a vibrant fire. “Flight,” (2003) by Torii Ippo — which features an intricate knot-like form from a long sheet of woven bamboo curled over itself — demonstrates the sculptural aspects that modern day artists have produced with bamboo.

The displays surrounding the center also reveal extreme deviation from traditional forms — turning pottery from a tool into an art form. This is best exemplified by “Wind” (2005) by Nagae Shigekazu. The piece looks like a porcelain box with its two opposite sides removed, so that the viewer can look right through it. “Wind” is important for this collection because it exemplifies another major change in Japan’s ceramics industry: the acceptance of women as artists.

The back wall of the exhibit is lined with various other works that show the full capacity of each of the mediums. Some of the highlights of this section are “Wave,” (2007) by Nishimura Yuko, a wall-long piece with a stretched and squished diamond pattern travelling along it, and Sakurai Yasuko’s “Vertical Flower” (2007) — which almost looks like a basket, but is actually a bowl-shaped porcelain sculpture with cylindrical holes punched through it. “Woman” (2005) by Nagakura Ken’ichi — a bamboo sculpture that looks as though it may have started as a basket, but slowly grew into a living being — is also impressive.

On the whole, the exhibit will give any viewer with even a small amount of knowledge of traditional Japanese art forms a reason to look twice. For those who are not as well versed in Japanese arts, the exhibit is still sure to amaze with its fantastic and eye-catching works. The exhibit will run through Sept. 8, 2014 and admission to the MFA is free with a Tufts ID.

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