Onishi Gallery is very pleased to host the first solo exhibition in the United States for Itō Sekisui V, the 76-year old master Japanese ceramist. When I met Itō for the first time in 2015, I remember how his eyes shined passionately with the challenge of a new project—this solo exhibition. Itō’s artwork is recognized by world-class art institutions including the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, but as Itō’s first solo exhibition in the United States, this show marks a defining moment in his international career.
Itō Sekisui V is a 14th generation ceramic potter, recognized in 2003 by the government of Japan as a “Living National Treasure” for his work in mumyōi. Mumyōi is a reddish brown clay extracted from the gold mines native to Sado Island in Niigata prefecture, where Itō was born. Itō spent years experimenting with mumyōi to create his signature aesthetic—black on red. This unique material and visual aesthetic are highlighted by Itō’s mastery of neriage, a type of earthen ware characterized by delicate patterns created through the layering and patching together of different reddish brown-toned clays. To bring out the vibrancy of the red, Itō does not apply glaze, but rather, uses different flame streams inside a wood-fired kiln—a rare firing technique called yōhen. The areas on his pots that are touched directly by the flames create a black hue. As a result, Itō’s mumyōi ware are decorated with colorful floral, mosaic, striped, and gradated patterns that mimic painted pottery. Itō’s lifelong ceramic experience and his creative ingenuity within traditional methods of mumyōi production, single him out as a visionary ceramist and leading artist in Japan.
Itō Sekisui V has said that the artist’s creative calling is to “bring forth what has never existed, something new and attractive.” Through this landmark exhibition of his work, Itō brings forth his unmatched skill and unique talent to present new and stunning pieces of art. Itō has been the recipient of many prestigious awards in the past, including the Medal with Purple Ribbon in 2005, and in 2011, the Order of the Rising Sun - Gold Rays with Rosette from the Emperor of Japan. With this solo American debut, we do not doubt he will continue to be honored for his contributions to the history and growing tradition of Japanese ceramic arts in the United States.
Onishi Gallery Owner/Founder
Roses of Red Clay
Sado Island, in Niigata Prefecture, is well-known for its gold and silver mines. During the Edo period (1603–1867), Kinzan, a mountain with rich mineral veins, produced massive quantities of gold, providing a significant revenue for the Tokugawa shogunate. Around the 1840s, Ito Jinpei, a local potter, started to use the ochre Sado Island clay, a by-product of the Kinzan gold mines, to make Raku ware. The red clay, called Mumyoi, started to be used shortly after that, and Ito Tomitarō (1838–1872) and then the Meiji period (1867–1912) potter, Miura Jōzan (1836–1903) established the foundations of the Mumyoi pottery. He studied Yixing clay tea pots, and developed his own technique using the Sado Island clay. There were only few artists specializing in Mumyoi pottery. Traditionally, the potters of the island use two types of clay, the red and the yellow. After the firing, the red clay becomes dark red, while the yellow turns bright orange. The red Mumyoi clay has unusually high iron oxide content, which is related to the gold veins as both are produced by volcanic activities.
In China, a natural red clay was used as a medication to heal wounds and stop bleeding. When Li Shizhen (1518–1593), a Chinese medical doctor and pharmacologist worked on his Compendium of Materia Medica, he realized that this clay had no name and called it as Mumyoi (無名異), literally “the unusual with no name.” During the Edo period, when Japan imported Mumyoi clay from China, they realized that the Sado Island red clay has similar properties, so it was also named Mumyoi.
Ceramic wares created in the Sekisui family kiln are made from Mumyoi clay. The Sekisui kiln is in Aikawa, on Sado Island, and its history can be traced back to the Tenpō period (1830–1844), when Ito Tomisaburo founded the family pottery and started producing Mumyoi works. It was Ito Sekisui V’s great-great-grandfather who first used the name Sekisui, which consists of the characters “red” and “water” evoking the Mumyoi clay, and started creating ceramic household wares as well as artistic vessels.
Ito Sekisui V (b. 1941) was designated a Living National Treasure in 2003 by the Japanese government in recognition of his development and refinement of two techniques centered on using Mumyoi clay. He is the first Mumyoi potter to receive this title, so he earned it in a similar way as many of the potters who were designated in the first wave of the Living National Treasure system nominations.
Sekisui was born in Aikawa on Sado Island, and became the head of the family kiln in 1976 after graduating from the Kyoto Institute of Technology in 1966. His Mumyoi work was first exhibited at the Traditional Japanese Craft Association’s annual exhibition in 1972. His works are modern and traditional at the same time–while preserving the craftsmanship associated with Mumyoi ware he creates fresh, modern compositions with contemporary aesthetic. He uses mainly two techniques, both are without the application of glazes (yakishime), and the artworks represent two different aspects of ceramic art, one is the tactile texture and dramatic color contrast, and the other is the delicate, fine patterning.
Sekisui is a master of yōhen (“kiln change”), a technique that involves controlling the flame streams inside of the wood-fired anagama kiln. With the careful assessment of the kiln’s atmosphere, certain areas of the vessel will oxidize to an orange-red color, while others, exposed to the flames, reduce to dark grey. These works have a dramatic effect with the two contrasting colors and the seemingly unplanned burn marks. Yōhen works recall Yayoi period (300 B.C.–300 A.D.) earthenwares, which were fired in the open and their distinctive colors and textures were formed by the forces of nature.
Sekisui’s other signature technique is neriage (kneaded “marbled” ware). The delicate, refined flower patterns are created by stacking and kneading different colors of the Mumyoi clay into blocks and then slicing through the cross section to reveal the design, finally patching together the pieces. The results, including mosaic and striped patterns, or Sekisui’s characteristic gradated flowers reflect careful planning and the love for the wet-clay stage of pottery making as well as handbuilding. His Mumyoi neriage works can easily be mistaken for painted pottery. Sekisui first created bowls, then flat dishes, round dishes, pentagonal ones, later jars, and finally square jars. He also experimented with the color combinations of the clays, and started to use black as the background color. The yōhen technique always involves a certain “unexpected” effect created by the kiln and the fire, while in the neriage the design process is completely controlled by the artist.
Now, Sekisui is developing a new style, using stone from Sado Island to continue his journey exploring the artistic possibilities of the rich materials provided by his homeland.
Assistant Curator, Japanese Decorative Arts
The Metropolitan Museum of Art