In New York, Contemporary Japanese Artists Reimagine an Age-Old Art Form

There is no doubt that kōgei is having a moment. A traditional Japanese art form, “kōgei” roughly translates as “artisan craft.” It is currently the subject of a major exhibition,“Japanese Kōgei | Future Forward,” at New York’s Museum of Arts & Design (MAD) as well as a concurrent show at Chelsea’s Onishi Gallery, which specializes in contemporary Japanese art.

Why the sudden interest in a centuries-old genre? Perhaps because kōgei isn’t just about the past: both exhibitions focus on contemporary, even futuristic, interpretations of the traditional approach, where small functional vessel are wrought from metal, stone, and porcelain and adorned with patterns, textures, and other decorative details. Throughout its long history, kōgei has involved a high level of skill and thorough knowledge of specific techniques and materials. But today’s practitioners, with new technologies at their fingertips, have access to even more specialized techniques. What’s more, where historical approaches to kōgei once shifted from region to region, today’s artists are no longer limited by locally available materials or regional cultural preferences. With ease and rapidity, information exchanged through the internet is inspiring new kōgei techniques that transcend geography and are drawn from contemporary culture—design, art, animation, and even manga. 

Today’s kōgei reflects this sense of interconnectedness and the breadth of cultural influences available to contemporary artists while reincarnating some of the art form’s older traditions. At Onishi Gallery, “Contemporary Japanese Kōgei” highlights modern works by eight Japanese artists taking inspiration from traditional kōgei. Many of these works, like their predecessors, have practical functions—tea kettles, incense burners, water bowls, and ceremonial vessels are all on display. A closer look reveals subtle references to modern design, like the geometric shape and minimalist lines of Hata Shunsai’s Faceted Tea Kettle (2012), or the biomorphic form, resembling a rock chipped from a mountain, of Ohi Toshio’s Ōhi White Ceremonial Vessel "Hakobune 02" (2007). 


A masterful piece in copper and brass, Joji Kojima’s Mokume-Gane Armor #3 (2013)  is meant to elegantly cover a finger with armor. You might not recognize Kojima’s name, but you’ll likely recognize one of his best-known works—the conversation-starting chainmail mask that Lady Gaga wore on the cover of her Fame Monster album. This month, Onishi Gallery and MAD resurface a resurgent art form in the throes of evolution—and a group of artists approaching a traditional practice experimentally, with an eye towards the future. 


Bridget Gleeson


Contemporary Japanese Kōgei” is on view at Onishi Gallery, New York, Oct. 20th – Nov. 14th, 2015.

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