Women's Work: Visions from Japan

Women's Work: Visions from Japan

Published on Thursday, September 10, 2009.

Atsuko Kubota, Large Plate with Cherry Blossom Pattern, 2003, porcelain, 3/8 x 22 1/4 D., courtesy International Arts and Artists. Private collection.

A visit to the Crocker Art Museum’s “Soaring Voices: Contemporary Japanese Women Ceramic Artists” [through Oct. 18, then traveling] was both a pleasure and an irritation. To anyone who follows ceramics—especially Japanese ceramics—this is a not-to-be-missed show. With 86 works by 25 admirable makers, it was informative, surprising and beautiful. In Japan’s long tradition, some of the ancient potters may have been female, but in recent centuries ceramics was a male profession, women being restricted to support tasks in family workshops. But, as in the folk pottery of the American Southeast, when changing times meant that the potter no longer had the arduous task of processing clay, and when there was no longer demand for big vessels that required male physical strength, women at last had their opportunity to create.

Ironically, at least one of these makers (Kiyoko Koyama) does in fact process her own clay. And many of the displayed works are quite large. That may be the biggest surprise of the show, and it demolishes the stereotype of a dainty female limited by her gender. The beauty is no surprise. It ranges from Atsuko Kubota’s elegant celadon patterning on huge platters to Etsuko Tashima’s abstract sculptures recalling the shell-structure roof of the Sydney Opera House and creating a fluid sense of motion. There’s humor, certainly, in Yuriko Matsuda’s set of eight highly embellished buttocks, as if we were seeing fancy panties and rather private tattooing, but mostly the work is Zen taste, with sober and subtle colors. Within that is a huge range, from Yuki Nakaigawa’s three-foot-tall segmented sculpture that suggests a strange flat-bottom colorless pumpkin to Junko Kitamura’s sturdy vessels that are obsessively decorated by stamping a motif hundreds or thousands of times. On the other hand, Chieko Katsumata’s vessels have thick, fleshy walls of sandy surface and deep coloring that lead, erotically, to shadowy hollows, while Nanako Kaji works with a deep gray clay that she tears or cuts or squeezes and piles in raw-looking slabs. And that’s not the half of it.

What’s irritating then, you may wonder? The installation and the labeling. The Crocker, limited to a Victorian residence until its addition is finished next year, has spatial problems that interfere with the comprehensibility of this show. When you come in the main entrance it’s easy to bypass the introductory labeling, which is off to one side. It’s not clear where the exhibition starts. I asked an attendant and was told it didn’t matter, but it does! Unless a show is a hodgepodge of unrelated objects, there should be some logic to how you encounter things. Here there’s no logic to placement, with works by a given artist appearing anywhere over two floors. But there is order—thematic divisions—in the catalog. This is the rare show where I would really, really recommend reading the catalog: for the themes and for the very helpful background essays by Louise Cort of Washington’s Freer Gallery and Hiroko Miura of the Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park in Japan, which is touring the show. Yet there is no explanation of how the artists were chosen. Many are known here through the Japanese ceramics show that was at the Boston MFA and the Japan Society in New York not long ago. But why are some important women such as Machiko Ogawa not included? And labeling: couldn’t the text on low platforms be a little larger? I saw viewers bending over to try to make it out.

And one last complaint, perhaps one that would come only from a critic. I was not allowed to use a pen to take notes. A guard offered me a pencil. But pencils are lousy for note taking. Graphite smears, and there’s not as much contrast, making the notes harder to read. What’s the point of the ban, anyway? Fountain pens, which can leak, are no longer common. But if the issue is damage, couldn’t a vandal wreak just as much havoc stabbing with a pencil? The requirement seemed particularly pointless because the guard approached me when I was looking at works in display cases. Close to half the works in the show are protected by glass (which, by the way, limits the tactile impact of ceramics). Couldn’t critics or academics or students be given a pen permit?