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Shozo Michikawa: nature into art: viewing the 2007 exhibition of Shozo Michikawa's work Thirty Years, Thirty Pots at the Galerie Besson, London, proved to be a stimulating and memorable experience. This was Michikawa's second one man show at Besson and demonstrates how his pieces continue to develop.

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SHOZO MICHIKAWA'S WORK EVOKES NATURE IN MANY different ways and I found myself thinking about another exhibition which I had visited recently, Andy Goldsworthy, at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, who employs natural materials, earth, wood and vegetation, to create sculptural constructions which like Michikawa's pots resonate with the rhythms of the natural environment. Michikawa uses the elemental substance clay and through his manipulation of this material and chosen methods of firing produces pieces which are imbued with the essence of the landscape.

I write this while sitting in an ancient English wood on a glorious autumn day. The subject of beauty dominates my thoughts as I contemplate the relationship of Michikawa's pots to the seasons and the world of nature. I also find myself considering the inequalities which exist between the roles and perceived status of the applied artist and practitioners of the fine arts.

I am surrounded and somewhat overwhelmed by the infinite range of hues from acid yellow through fiery red to smouldering crimson. My feet rest in the leaf litter and every movement I make provokes a pleasant rustle redolent of the season. The leaves are never still as they are chased in eddies by the light breeze so that their myriad colours dance in the autumn sun. I am reminded of the subtle nuances of colour and changes in tone which I found so compelling as I viewed the show at Galerie Besson. The gallery space was well lit and provides a neutral background which allows the viewer to appreciate the works on display without distraction. The pots animated the space, bringing with them, as they did so, not just a rich array of colours and textures but a quality of movement and a suggestion of the seasons.

The aromatic smell of wood smoke which permeates the air where I sit turns my mind to the many conversations I have enjoyed with Michikawa about the design, building and use of the traditional Japanese anagama kilns, and also the ash encrusted enrichments found on some of the woodfired pieces in the exhibition. These ash deposits cling to the ceramic body just as stalactites and stalagmites bejewel the surfaces and fissures of a rock face. Like these crystalline treasures the complex ash structures appear to have evolved over time adding yet another dimension to these pieces.

The exhibition featured pots made over the past four years with the majority of pieces being made in 2007. They represented a diversity of approach from the splendid kohiki (white slip-ware) pots, with their characteristic white glaze to natural ash pieces and tanka (charcoal-fired) vessels.

Within the kohiki group, two pieces in particular stand out. The first was a large oval bowl with an irregular rim. The flared exterior walls of this piece were striated with helical furrows which not only draw attention to the form but also suggest a quality of graceful movement.

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Within the furrows the kohiki glaze has gathered like blown snow across a ploughed field. The brown ridges of the underlying body are left to create a delicate spider's web of drawn lines which radiate almost to the lip of the bowl. The smooth narrow band which forms the lip is intensely white, the glaze being particularly opaque. The bowl's interior is equally spectacular, revealing dramatic areas of contrast varying between pale shimmering translucence, opaque whiteness and rich earthy brownness. I must also mention the foot rim of this vessel which is left free of glaze revealing the raw colour of the body.

The second kohiki piece to demand my attention was a pot of triangular form. The trilobed nature of this vessel was further enhanced by being twisted around its vertical axis so that three curvilinear fins are created. These fins are cut through at certain points and the resulting effect is to convey to the viewer a sense of stored energy and movement. The fractured white faces are broken by areas of brown. The brilliant whiteness of the lip contrasts dramatically with the darkness of the pot's narrow mouth.

Moving to the large group of natural ash pieces, it comprised a range of vessels some of traditional Japanese form and others of a more challenging and innovative architectural nature. From the first group one piece in particular stood out. A mizusashi (water jar) of tapering square profile which resembled a series of stacked slates with fractured edges, each layer being slightly offset. The texture of this piece is reminiscent of sea-weathered wood with elements of silver grey, sea green and pale ochre which glistened where the glaze has pooled in the crevices of each face.

The circular mouth of this pot is formed by four undulating trapezoid sides. But perhaps the most visually seductive quality came with the dramatic contrast between the ceramic body of the vessel and the mirror smooth black lacquer which had been used to create its cover. The incorporation of this traditional Japanese material heightened one's appreciation of the object and one's awareness of its cultural origins. The simplicity of this black lacquer shape, with the reflective quality of water, provided a perfect counterpoint to the craggy complexity of the vessel's ceramic walls.

A second mizusashi was perhaps the most structurally astonishing pot in the whole show. This vessel was formed by a series of three curvilinear tyre-like sides whose corrugated nature and richness of colour was compelling. The junctions between each side revealed fractures like a lava flow and the irregular aperture formed by their conjunction was closed once again by an irregular black lacquer component. The knop of this cover was a simple bridge form. The corrugations of the vessel's surface created a sense of movement which led the eye irrevocably to the pool of darkness formed by the lacquer cover.

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A natural ash bowl with an irregular rim had an understated elegance. Its exterior surface was figured with concentric furrows that followed the irregular form creating a three-dimensional contour map that is irresistible to both hand and eye. The texture of this piece reminds me of a wasp's nest. The saw-toothed edges of each ridge were accentuated by changes of colour that occurred as you descended to the unfigured foot rim. Shadows cast by each concentric ridge emphasised the bowl's richness of surface. The interior of this piece, although not smooth, provided a startling contrast with the exterior's feel of brittle fragility, its most striking feature being a series of burnt orange graduated bands.

The series of tanka pieces within the exhibition were characterised by a combination of restrained transfer printed designs featuring lines and lattices. These transfer printed elements provided a subtle and intricate counterpoint to the coarser textural treatments found in other areas of the pieces. They also demonstrate Michikawa's willingness to experiment with processes more often associated with commercial manufacture than with studio production techniques.

A striking example in this category of work was a vase which appeared to be made up of nine superimposed triangular segments, the apex of each triangle having been cut and twisted to create a complex shape. Each segment offset like a spiral staircase was enhanced by the application of a pair of transfer-printed parallel lines in silvery white. In some areas these linear embellishments were broken because of the varied textures generated through the manipulation of the underlying clay.

These regions communicate a sense of tension and restrained energy. The screw-like radiating fins suggest movement and this effect is further enhanced by the transfer printed elements. This piece echoes forms found in both pollen grains and cacti. The top of the pot resembles the cone of a volcano, its lower slopes burned brown becoming gradually paler toward the narrow irregular crater-like mouth.

A second tanka vase has a square profile and, as with the previous piece the apex of each corner is cut and cupped. A third of the way down a channel has been gouged and the pot twists around this incision creating a series of distorted planes. The irregular nature of the alternate faces is accentuated through the use of a net-like lattice transfer print which distorts to echo the undulations of the surface. As with the previous vase a network of fine fault lines imbue the piece with a sense of tension and elastic energy. The cut corners of this piece are transformed at the top of the vase into four ridges which take the form of triangular fins terminating in the narrow yet cavernous irregular mouth.

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The world of nature is reflected in the shapes, materials and patina of Michikawa's pieces. This echoes the traditional Japanese reverence for the environment and seasons, as is demonstrated by the use of kigo (season) in the Japanese poetic forms, Haiku and Renga. The intensity of Haiku depends on the concept of 'less is more'. I believe this quality is reflected in Michikawa's work through his desire for minimal intervention in order to reveal the raw vitality of the material itself.

In this way, his pieces seem to capture the essence of living energy we find in nature. Tradition is also honoured by his choice to make vessels connected with Japan's cultural heritage, mizusashi, incense burners and teapots, some of which incorporate the use of lacquer elements, another well recognised Japanese material. These pieces retain the integrity of purpose without impeding exciting experiments in form and surface.

However, one group of pieces at Besson are typified by their uncompromising architectural qualities which appear to draw on the vocabulary of the built environment while retaining some of the coveted qualities of nature.

The tall kohiki pot takes the form of a square profiled tower comprising six sections with each face incised vertically with two channels dividing each segment into three rectangular blocks. The whole form has then been twisted to create a Solomonic pillar. The upper regions of this vessel are cloaked in the opaque white kohiki glaze. The screw-like helical ridges create fine dark lines bordering luminous fields. In the lower portion of the pot the glaze is thinner and more translucent allowing the underlying oxidised surface to show through. The piece shares organic qualities found in the buildings of the American architect Frank Gehry, such as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. The irregular upper edges of each segment suggest qualities of growth and also reminds one of Brancusi's Endless Columns.

Another kohiki piece, a cut-sided pot, shares this combination of organic and architectural qualities. The pot's central core is figured by a series of rectilinear blocks arranged in a helical pattern and only the sharp edges of this form are free from the lustrous snow like glaze. The vessel's topmost surface consists of four irregular planes meeting at the characteristically narrow yet beckoning mouth.

These two kohiki pieces share an asymmetric quality but this does not preclude them from appearing both harmonious and balanced. A consideration of these well proportioned forms with their interplay of positive and negative spaces and intriguing shadow lines reminds me of the work by Shozo Michikawa's countryman, the architect, Tadao Ando.

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The final architectural piece I would like to mention is the tall natural ash pot that takes the form of a box girder which has been crushed and twisted to create a dynamic structure appearing to defy gravity. Despite its deformation the pot asserts a sense of rigidity and strength while its twisted edges and irregular lip call to mind ruined towers. The colour and surface patina of this piece further seduce the eye. In contrast to the kohiki pieces the edges of this vessel are light while its planes exhibit a rich variety of autumnal colours intensified by a particular glossiness.

While I've been writing this the light has been gradually fading, colours and tones have changed but what remains the same is my conviction that the intense beauty and challenging nature of Michikawa's pieces make them just as potent and meaningful as work by any fine artist. Perhaps it will not be too long before the enlightened attitude of Japan, where applied artists are accorded the status of National Treasures, becomes prevalent in the west.

The achievement of Shozo Michikawa's aesthetic is to be daringly innovative while retaining links to his country's traditional culture. This exhibition confirms Galerie Besson's commitment to represent the most exciting and profound work by contemporary artists in ceramics.

Michael C Stewart is a painter and lecturer on Fine Art and Art History from the UK. Photography Alan Tabor. The exhibition Shozo Michikawa: Thirty Years, Thirty Pots was shown at Galerie Besson, 5-27 September 2007.
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Author:Stewart, Michael C.
Publication:Ceramics Art & Perception
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 1, 2008
Words:2098
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