New and Old Blended in Earthy Harmony
By ROBERT YELLIN
for The Japan Times, July 24, 1999
One of the greatest challenges facing any Japanese artist is to mix tradition with meaningful innovation. Many artisans merely imitate the past with little originality -- a rehashing of past masters that leaves many of Japan's great artistic traditions in stagnation.
A rugged kirei-sabi
by Nakamura Takuo
One contemporary ceramic artist who is meeting the challenge of balancing the past with his own creative vision is the current master of the Baizan (Plum Mountain) kiln, Nakamura Takuo. His work can be seen at Wako Hall located in Ginza Wako department store until July 28, 1999.
Nakamura finds inspiration in the ceramic styles of the Edo Period (1603-1868), while at the same time he keenly observes modern life in his hometown, the culturally rich city of Kanazawa, located on the Japan Sea.
"I was lucky to grow up in Kanazawa, with its exuberant and diverse culture," says Nakamura. "Also, compared to other potteries that are only involved in production, in Kanazawa we have as well a variety of places, like temples and elegant Japanese inns, that use the wares. It's helpful to get feedback on the local level from the users of my work."
When looking at Nakamura's muted, clay-colored pottery, painted with resplendent enamel designs, it is easy to spot his direct reference to the Rinpa school of painting which first began around 1600. Rinpa is characterized by a decorativeness, a delicate sense of color and an abstract sense of design; all these elements are to be found in Nakamura's pottery.
Nakamura refers to Ogata Korin (1658-1716), one of the champions of Rinpa, as his main influence; Korin was a master of kirei-sabi (subdued beauty) -- a term that refers to a kind of refined, elegant loneliness. Nakamura's work certainly incorporates aspects of kirei sabi, with his earth-tone pieces entwined with opulent gold designs.
Kirei sabi was an aesthetic ideal almost forgotten in Japanese ceramics until Nakamura became captivated with its entrancing possibilities. The 53-year-old Nakamura wants to show in his work that the beautiful can exist in the seemingly mundane. He uses a technique known as zogan in which he inlays white clays into the drying form. The deep brown earth tones of Nakamura's work are then overglazed with the go-sai (five colors: red, yellow, green, dark blue and purple) of Kutani ware (a popular porcelain ware from Nakamura's hometown) in patterns known as seigai-ha (blue waves) or bishamon-kikko (an interlocking tortoiseshell pattern).
Although his style incorporates the same color scheme as those of Kutani, Nakamura's work is completely different in that it uses a rough stoneware clay whereas Kutani is exclusively porcelain. Very few of his Kutani peers use such materials -- only those who emulate him.
"Already there are potters copying my style and this is flattering, yet it bothers me a bit. I always have to change my forms to keep up with these imitators. I wouldn't mind so much if they copied my pieces well, but most do not, and then they sell for much less than mine!" he told me recently. Nakamura learned his technique from his father who invented it.
A Nakamura zogan flower vase has a pleasing rough-textured base, accentuated with a thin strip of an overglaze enamel design which leads the eye up to the rising, faceted neck with its brilliant subtle patterns ending in a six-sided mouth. A flower would gladly sacrifice itself to end its days in a Nakamura vase.
Or take a moment (one that will never pass again) to gaze upon his mizusashi, a water jar used in the tea ceremony. It has the ruggedness of a mountain range and the refinement of a string of pearls.
In the current exhibition the focus will be on simple L-shaped tahiragi slabs angled together to form a partition, which Nakamura wants to have used in a tea room. A Buddhist term that Nakamura had in mind when creating the show's theme works is kekai, which refers to a fence around a temple that separates the ordinary from the sacred: an "illusionary wall," as he terms it. In tea rooms a wooden kekai partition has ordinarily been used, but Nakamura wants to change that.
Many of Nakamura's tahiragi slabs are inlaid with muted zogan and overglaze designs that would become lost in fluorescent light. It's the subdued and softer tones of a Japanese room that allow the gold designs to shine. The late novelist Junichiro Tanizaki once wrote a classic essay on Japanese aesthetics entitled "In Praise of Shadows," which addresses the power of minimal lighting, like a few candles, to illuminate and show the brilliance of a gold partition or byobu.
The "L" shaped pieces are very minimalistic and won't upset the tranquillity of a tea ceremony.
The current exhibition will feature close to 100 pieces.
For more on Nakamura Takuo, please click here.
The Japan Times: July 24, 1999
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