Zen and the Art of Pottery

A New Exhibit at the Lowe Explores Contemporary Japanese Ceramic Art

Out of all the Japanese pottery by master Kondo Takahiro, it’s the ones that came after the largest earthquake in his country’s history that feel particularly resonant. 3/11, as the disaster became known, marked the largest loss of life in Japan since World War II, with nearly 20,000 dead. The chain reaction caused by the tremor on March 11, 2011, included a massive tsunami and a nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant.

Takahiro reckoned with the disaster through his own artistry, beginning his “Reduction” series that same year. He created 20 sculptures of his own likeness, seated in Zen meditation. One of these statues forms the centerpiece of the Lowe Art Museum’s latest exhibition, “Transcendent Clay – Kondo: A Century of Japanese Ceramic Art.” One-fifth the size of the artist, the statue is made of porcelain with a marbled exterior and covered in fine silver beads, with an unusual gold embellishment: kintsugi, a traditional tech\nique that uses gold-dusted lacquer to repair broken pottery.

Guest curator Joe Earle says the kintsugi “gives marvelous emphasis to the whole point of the work, this notion of fragility, breakability — it reminds us to be mindful of our place in the universe.” It also forms a powerful metaphor of Japan’s recovery from 3/11. Takahiro’s likeness is covered with brown and black streaks, as if recently buried in the earth, yet its pose remains solemn and strong, the damage repaired.

If there is any focus on history in the show, it’s that of the Kondo family itself, which over three generations developed, refined, and revolutionized Japanese porcelain art. Four members of the family are represented in the show: Takahiro (born 1958), his father Hiroshi (1936-2012), uncle Yutaka (1932-1983), and grandfather Yuzo (1902-1985), named a Living National Treasure by the Japanese government in 1977.

Descended from a samurai family, it was Yuzo’s decision to train in ceramic arts that set the family down its fateful path. Yuzo became a master of sometsuke, a blue-and-white porcelain style brought from Asia by Korean artisans in the 17th century. In the 1950s, Yuzo began to add multi-color pigments. Some of the most distinctive works in the show are marvelous porcelain vessels from the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Zen and the Art of Pottery
Yuzo became a master of sometsuke, a blue-and-white porcelain style brought from Asia by Korean artisans in the 17th century.

His sons both became ceramicists, but while Hiroshi continued the blue-and-white style of his father, his elder son Yutaka broke with tradition. He became particularly fascinated by buncheong, a stamped stoneware style from Korea. The works from him in the exhibition show its influence, and they appear both ancient and modern, with dark colors and patterned markings that evoke some lost, alien civilization.

Then came Takahiro. Yuzo’s grandson had never intended to join the family business; his original career path was table tennis. Yutaka’s early death in 1983 changed things, however, and Takahiro adopted his uncle’s craft. First, he experimented with metal glaze, resulting in an iconic, patented technique called “ginteki” (“Silver Mist”), where tiny beads of metal form on the exterior of the porcelain. These pieces feel especially appropriate for glitzy Miami.

Throughout his career, Takahiro experimented with dozens of new techniques and forms, pushing ceramic art beyond the confines of the vessel, creating abstract forms that broke with the Kondo tradition of representation.

Eventually, he began to create self-portraits, incorporating his entire arsenal of techniques in a series of slip-casted statues of his own head titled “Reflection.” But 3/11 caused Takahiro to shift his priorities. He began volunteering in Tohoku, his wife’s home region, to aid its recovery. He worked actively there, creating raw, ash-glazed stoneware from local materials. His “Reduction,” on display, epitomizes that period.

Lowe Art Museum at The University Of Miami

Wednesday to Saturday 10 am to 4 pm. Free admission.

Douglas Markowitz writes for Artburst Miami, a nonprofit source of theater, dance, visual arts, music, and performing arts news.