Japanese Artists Find Inspiration in the Rich, Historical Tradition of Kōgei

Mar 10, 2016 12:17AM

In celebration of its 10th anniversary, Onishi Gallery enlists over 30 artists for “Kōgei: Contemporary Japanese Art,” a new show that honors Japan’s distinct melding of art, culture, and tradition.

The Asia Week show revolves around kōgei, a deeply rooted historical tradition wherein highly skilled, trained artists apply their techniques to an array of aesthetic designs. In English, kōgei translates to “skilled art,” though it is often interpreted as “craft”; indeed, the concept has no perfect Western analog.

Kōgei pieces can assume functional forms—bowls, plates, vessels—or exist as nonfunctional, freestanding objects. Artists’ approaches vary wildly: Minimalist, pristine sculptures are on view alongside meticulously detailed representations of the natural world.

Taking inspiration from the traditional Japanese tea ceremony of chanoyu, some artists create vessels that could actually hold hot water. Others apply specific technical processes, like the integration of a white porcelain material called nigoshide, known for its magnificent milky white color. Maeta Akihiro’s White Porcelain Twisted Faceted Jar (2015) is an egglike, hollow sculpture with a strikingly smooth surface. After the initial throw, the artist works from a potter’s wheel and uses a blade to remove all traces of his handiwork from the surface. The result is an elegant nigoshide sculpture unlike any other.

Sakaida Kakiemon—a 14th-generation porcelainist—comes from a strong line of artists concerned with compelling compositional motifs. In Nigoshide white vase with acorn patterns (2015), teal-green and watery-blue leaves mingle on a spindly branch, with pops of red materializing in the form of acorns. These organic components are rendered with harmonious, fluid brushwork indicative of Kakiemon’s skill with enamel.

Artists working in the tradition of kōgei were seen as craftsmen until 1910, when their work began being featured in world expositions. The Japanese government supported their practices, and now, like manga or judo, it’s a point of cultural pride. Aside from several international museum shows, however, kōgei remained outside the global art market—until now.

Anna Furman

Kōgei: Contemporary Japanese Art” is on view at Onishi Gallery, New York, Mar. 1–Mar. 19, 2016.

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