Take for instance Konno Tomoko’s Liberation, which looks like a plant creature about to walk away.
Or Mori Aya’s Sarcotesta, an expression of the primordial in nature.
Oishi Sayaka’s Hiding Apple: Skull is a fantastical amalgamation of body parts, insects, and flora.
Other works in the show, which spotlights the tremendous contributions Japanese women have made to the field of ceramics since 1970, astound us in their ability to look like they are not made of clay at all. Fujino Sachiko’s Wordless has a matte dark-gray finish that is so smooth it evokes metal. Bag Work, by Tanaka Yu, looks like a yellow piece of wrapping cloth obscuring a vessel. Shigematsu Ayumi’s Jōmon Fantasia is a pastel-colored surrealistic form that appears to be plastic or silicone. And the master of illusion, Mishima Kimiyo, in an untitled work offers up a crushed cardboard box stuffed with newspapers made from silkscreened sheets of clay.
Illusions in Clay
The 40 pieces in this show are the products of 36 artists, both established and emerging, who have brought a refreshingly new perspective to the competitive arts scene in their home country and abroad. As a group, these women tend to have been trained at prestigious art schools and spent time outside Japan rather than working for years in traditional kilns. And their largely sculptural works exhibit an independence from the tradition-based methods and forms that predominate even contemporary ceramic collections in North American museums, which have long focused on tea ceremony objects and vessels.
Indeed, many museums in North America are only now beginning to acquire and display their sculptures. Perhaps even more surprisingly, the prevailing American preference for tradition-based works lies in stark contrast to the vibrant ceramics scene that has played out in Japan over recent decades.
An influential group formed in 1957, the Joryū Tōgei (Women’s Association of Ceramic Art) included a small but vital contingent of women artists looking to promote and exhibit their work outside of the established channels that often overlooked them. It was spearheaded by Tsuboi Asuka, whose focus on the female body as an expression of sexuality was groundbreaking. A recent work by Tsuboi, Chinese-Brocade Ancient Skirt, still refers to the body in its contours and is included in this exhibition. The Joryū Tōgei was in part a reaction to the Sōdeisha group, which had formed about 10 years earlier and turned the traditional ceramics world upside-down by producing asymmetrical modernist sculptures in clay but was heavily dominated by men. Many women artists found there was a need to actively work together to press for recognition despite their own wild experimentation. Highly successful, the Joryū Tōgei is still active today.
In the 1980s, a new generation saw the continued increasing prominence of women ceramic artists as well as a new title for those creating large and polarizing installation work—Chōshojo (Supergirls). This was not a self-styled group like the Joryū Tōgei but a designation given to a handful of female artists by certain art critics. The group included Tashima Etsuko, who in 1981 exhibited a ceramic installation based on molds of her own body, including her open legs and buttocks. She is represented in this exhibition by a work of her recent Flowers series.
Sexuality as a theme has continued to be tackled by many women artists, both overtly (Matsuda Yuriko’s In Her Shoes) and in more conceptual ways (Futamura Yoshimi’s Big Birth).
Today, thanks in large part to the artists promoting their own work through exhibitions, interviews, and an online presence, as well as pioneering private collectors and dealers who have created a US market for such works, sculptures by Japanese women ceramists are more frequently on view at major American museums. And this surge of interest from the US has had an impact back home in Japan. Senior figures with decades of success behind them, such as Ogawa Machiko and Tsuboi Asuka, are now recognized as groundbreaking contemporary artists. Works by Koike Shōko and Kishi Eiko are in the collections of dozens of major international institutions. And at last, younger artists are finding that their work is gaining the attention of collectors and museums the world over; works by Hosono Hitomi and Aoki Katsuyo have even been featured in presentations of global contemporary ceramic art, though such inclusion is still a rare occurrence.
The first Art Institute presentation dedicated solely to works by Japanese women, Radical Clay joins the recent influx of presentations and exhibitions by major institutions but also stands out in its inclusion of artists of all three formative generations from the 1960s onward. I hope you’ll stop by to enjoy these mesmerizing works in person and that you’ll join me for a panel with two of the artists featured in the exhibition, Hosono Hitomi and Yamaguchi Mio, on March 23.
—Janice Katz, Roger L. Weston Associate Curator of Japanese Art
Radical Clay: Contemporary Women Artists from Japan runs through June 3 in galleries 108 and 109.
Lead support for Radical Clay: Contemporary Women Artists from Japan is generously provided by Carol & Jeffrey Horvitz.
Additional support is contributed by the Japan Foundation.