Masaomi Yasunaga: Looking Afar / 遠くを見る
On ViewLisson Gallery
Looking Afar / 遠くを見る
September 8–October 15, 2022
Like Japan’s postwar Gutai Art Association (1954–1972), which exhorted its members to “create what has never been done before,” the contemporaneous Sōdeisha ceramics school (“Crawling through Mud Association”) (1948–1998) wanted to “make something new.”1 Founded by a coterie of young potters in Kyoto, the Sōdeisha group sought to cleave ceramics from the cultural nationalism associated with the prevailing Mingei (folk-craft) movement and the functionality mandated by tea rituals and kaiseki; instead, these artists hand-built expressive kiln-fired “objets” that were often more sculptural than serviceable. A former student of Sōdeisha member Satoru Hoshino, contemporary Japanese potter Masaomi Yasunaga carries some of the school’s avant-garde predilections forward, deftly melding traditional and experimental techniques to make inscrutable and compelling objects with a constitutional aversion to orthodoxy.
Fifty-six of Yasunaga’s exploratory creations, all made in the past four years, are currently on view at Lisson Gallery in Masaomi Yasunaga: Looking Afar / 遠くを見る. Some of the objects are mounted on pedestals like statues, while the bulk are clustered atop a raised bed of gravel loosely evoking Kofun (ca. 300–720), ancient Japanese burial mounds typically sentineled with hollow clay offering vessels. Recalling but not quite reproducing historic vessels, Yasunaga’s nonfunctional containers run the gamut in form and scale, from Empty creature (2021), a diminutive porcine figurine with a pebbled cavity, to Accumulation (2022), a pale ropy heap approximating a vase, to Melting boat (2022), a stone-studded tub that stretches nearly six feet long and over two and a half feet wide, riven by a central fault line that underscores its fundamental inoperability. Some of the objects don’t pretend to have functional aspirations: affixed to the wall, the lumpen, tabular Vessel fused with stone 1 and Vessel fused with stone 2 (both 2022) suggest shaped canvases or presentation plates rather than the titular object, begging the question of whether it is form, function, or something else entirely that makes a vessel a vessel.
Although Yasunaga is working within (and against) a lineage of ceramics, his objects frustrate “ceramics” as a neat classification. Using traditional hand-building and coiling processes, the artist sculpts his vessels from a special glaze with reduced water content, which enables him to deemphasize and even bypass the use of clay. What typically sheathes, decorates, strengthens, and seals a vessel becomes its very basis as slip and kaolin act as accents, a radical inversion that offers up abstract carapaces in lieu of functional pottery. Yasunaga prepares each fragile glazed construction for firing by burying it under protective layers of sand and kaolin, with which it will organically fuse in the kiln. After ceding a measure of control to nature in the firing stage, Yasunaga unearths the object—enacting a ritual performance of interment, transformation (transubstantiation?), and exhumation—and continues to refine its surface.
Several lightly pitted and fissured vessels in Looking Afar are incised with abstract patterns of steadily loping lines or allover circles, which inject flashes of blue and green into a relatively restrained palette of neutrals and pastels. Most of the objects, particularly when Yasunaga is building on a large scale, are characterized by wildly bumpy and irregular surfaces embedded—with varying degrees of serendipity and intentionality—with the feldspars, granite, copper, and kaolin that regularly feature in his process. These craggy exteriors and their less readily visible interior counterparts conjure up the dazed mythos of heavily barnacled shipwrecks and deteriorating archaeological sites, jumbled places where human time scales push up against the geological. Gerund-heavy titles evoking geological transformation—“crumbling,” “melting,” “regenerating”—allude to metamorphosis in the kiln as they gesture to more gradual material and ontological unfoldings, suggesting that Yasunaga’s curious vessels will remain unresolved, unfixed, unknown.
- “We wanted to make something new rather than embracing any orthodoxy. Moreover, we wanted to create a new life rather than living according to the old rules for doing things.” Kazuo Yagi, as quoted in Alice and Halsey North and Louise Allison Cort, Listening to Clay: Conversations with Contemporary Japanese Ceramic Artists (New York: Monacelli Press, 2022), p. 19.