Yoshita Yukio Exhibit
Tokyo American Club
Nov. 24th to Dec. 7th, 2003
Story and Photos
by Aoyama Wahei
Photo courtesy Yufuku Gallery
If only smiling cherubs were dancing above Yoshita Yukio's work. Such are the soft, angelic, warm feelings one receives after seeing Yoshita's delicate Kutani-yaki. Such empathy is hardly common in porcelain wares, for porcelain can often be unfairly downplayed as being cold, calculated, even hollow. Yet Yoshita's work is far removed from such objections. Rather, the landscapes of Yoshita's work are more the realm of stoneware, not porcelain. And this, I believe, is the new direction Yoshita is pushing against the outdated traditions of old porcelain kilns. Yoshita is bringing about a change in Kutani, a subtle revolution of emphatic spirituality and splendid celebration.
"When I was younger, I didn't like Kutani, and wanted to have nothing to do with it," Yoshita says matter-of-factly as we sit sipping coffee in the cafe at the Tokyo American Club. This comment is somewhat unexpected, when considering that it comes from a man who is the son of a Living National Treasure. That man, Yoshita Minori, received the greatest recognition in Japanese Art for his work in Kutani porcelain wares, particularly in the form of yuri-kinsai, or gold glazed ceramics. His son Yukio is the fourth generation in a potting tradition that put Kutani back on the pottery map. Yet unlike his father, Yoshita did not openly embrace his birthright. Rather, as many teenagers do, he shunned it all. (See Guidebook for more on Kutani.)
"Teenage rebellion? Of course," he calmly says. "I always liked art in general, but always growing up with Kutani, I felt it was a bit suffocating." Such antagonism is fairly understandable. Imagine having a Living National Treasure looming in the midst of your living room. Perpetually. To put it simply, one's future is predetermined to follow a tradition, and we all know how frustrating it can be to be told which way to walk in life.
Traditional arts and traditional techniques: the two are similar, yet not analogous. It is the latter which Yoshita values above the other, for he believes there are methods to making fine pottery that should not be forgotten. Yet even with his great respect towards traditional techniques, he does not want to fall prey to what we often call the downside of tradition - creative suffocation.
And creative suffocation he avoids by looking to the inspirational. And unsurprisingly, Yoshita's inspiration is derived not from his father, yet from a wide selection of art, in particular Renaissance Italy.
"Oh I just love Botticelli," Yoshita exclaims as I inquire upon his obvious affection for Italian art. I had sensed his admiration for the Occident when I first saw his work; there was something graceful in his forms, an elegant delicacy in style, a palette of faded pastel colors tested by the passing of time, which evoked the sublime frescos of Italian painters, which called to mind an aesthetic sensibility not found in typical Kutani wares. There was something spiritual about Yoshita's work, a warm mystique that was closer in kind to not Buddhism but to the Christian biblical. At Yoshita's exhibit, I witnessed a different Japan tradition, a Japan that blends traditional Japanese techniques with the spiritual essence of foreign cultures.
"There's something about the Renaissance which just fascinates me. I love European Art, but Italian art holds a special place in my heart," says Yoshita.
His eyes light up as he softly speaks of his long-held passion. He is like a child, dreaming of something he has never seen. Yoshita has yet to set foot in Italy, or even Europe, for that matter. Regardless, my humble opinion is that it will not be long before Yoshita debuts in a land far from Komatsu, where is home and kiln is located.
It is his subdued yet emphatic tones that separate Yoshita from other porcelain potters, especially in mass-produced modern-day Kutani, which sadly lacks all sense of originality or creativity, let alone human warmth.
Never wanting to sacrifice what Yoshita calls the "lucent transparency" of Kutani, yet striving to create a warmer, stoneware-like texture in his color tones, Yoshita struggled to balance the two virtues. To put it bluntly, it took Yoshita 10 years, or literally all of his 30s, to reach his present color scheme. The gold glaze that his father built his name upon is but ancillary to the pastels of Yoshita's brush.
"When many layers of different colors are applied, the brightness of individual pigments smudge together, thus at times turning the tone too dark; on the contrary, if only a single color is applied, the tone turns out too shallow. What I am trying to accomplish in a piece is to create a tone that is neither too dark nor shallow, and at the same time, retain the translucency of white porcelain," he says.
Yet his forms, as well, had a breeziness, a paper-thin delicacy, that is testament to it being shaped by a skilled hand. His plates are like feathers, his boxes, petite and refined. It surprised me, however, when Yoshita downplayed his prowess for forming.
"It is my forms that I am most unsatisfied with. It might take me another 10 years to get it right!" he says with a chuckle.
What is most striking, however, is that wet, milky over glaze that soaks the surface of his pots. They wrap the porcelain in soft snow and cream: a dream-like state of bliss in constant motion. Yoshita's pots, with both color and form, appear as if they are in a state of flux. In its delicacy is a life that is far from static.
Yoshita's period of rebellion lasted well into his mid-twenties. He had always wanted an outlet for his creativity, yet he staunchly refused to entrench and concede his creativity to the tall shadows of his father: perhaps this was what led him to not be taught a single method or family technique by the Living National Treasure. Rather, Yoshita learnt the tricks to his trade by the numerous "craftsmen without a name," those master artisans who had been working at the family kiln for generations. It was by way of observing the Kutani craftsmen that allowed Yoshita to conceive techniques of his own, such as rapidly drying the glaze with a hair dryer, thus allowing for him to create the glaze texture similar to stoneware glazing. Yoshita's glaze surfaces have that unique milky, earthy feeling, while typical Kutani porcelain is smooth. This is Yoshita's trademark that catches the eye and captivates the heart.
"The old kilns, they cling too hard to tradition. They stifle creativity. Everyone is worried about their own backs, and thus it's much easier to stay the same. Nothing progresses. Believe me, it's very trying when living in Kutani," explains Yoshita.
I nod my head in agreement, imagining a scene I had yet to see, yet which takes little effort to understand. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that all traditional kiln sites in Japan are faced with the problems of change and modernization. Tradition, on the one hand, is a beautiful virtue that should be upheld, to learn from our forefathers, to understand ways of past living that connects with today. Yet many times the name of tradition is harked by those who desire to retain the status quo, by those who deny progress. Perhaps this is why Yoshita looks to the Renaissance for inspiration. In its Enlightenment lies a revolution of thought, of leaving the old for new ideas, of bettering one's self. It takes him away from the myopia of present-day kilns, and propels the ceramist into endless possibilities of foreign lands. Perhaps such is the impetus for Yoshita's eagerness to exhibit abroad: the freedom.
"I'll love to have my works shown to people the world over. I'm not too sure if I'm at the level to be so ambitious, but going overseas is one of my long-held dreams. Maybe having a joint exhibit with my wife, now, that will be lovely as well."
He chuckles once more, and I smile back. Yoshita's wife Rumiko is not only a wonderful person, but is a potter in her own right. I imagine how it might be, the two of them traveling to New York or London for the first time, with enthusiastic foreign fans eagerly waiting for their exhibit to begin. Rest assured, the day will surely come. To be there as witness, I only hope.
LEARN MORE ABOUT YOSHITA YUKIO AND KUTANI WARE