Art & Antiques
Into the Spotlight: Contemporary Japanese Women Ceramists
By Lilly Wei
Clay, like many materials formerly relegated to the less acclaimed echelons of craft, at least in the United States, has risen in esteem of late, as have other so-called minor arts. There are more exhibitions dedicated to it, and clay appears more often as part of the repertoire of multidisciplinary artists in the wake of increasing aesthetic diversification and hybridization. Clay has its own storied history and other cultures have long prized it, particularly in Asia where rare porcelains can command upwards of eight figures, as one tangible index of worth. In Japan, ceramic works have been designated National Treasures, another measure of the esteem in which they are held. As might be expected, however, until recently, any ceramist considered of serious weight was male. “Radical Clay: Contemporary Women Artists from Japan,” on view at the Art Institute of Chicago from December 16, 2023 until June 3, 2024, persuasively argues the flip side of that story, featuring 36 outstanding Japanese ceramists representing several generations of women, the works from the collection of Carol and Jeffrey Horvitz.
Joe Earle, an expert on contemporary Japanese art, in one of the essays in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition for which he was the editor, traced the trajectory of women ceramists in Japan from the 19th-century Buddhist nun Otagaki Rengetsu to early modernists Suwa Sozan II to Ono Hakuko, to the increasing number of women practitioners entering the field since the 1950s and 1960s. Studio ceramics flourished as they did so, in what seems to be an intertwined development. Japan boasts the greatest number of clay artists in the world whose art, not so incidentally, can sustain them, although women artists still struggle with the same problems that beleaguer women everywhere in balancing the demands of traditional female roles with those of careers, especially in more patriarchal societies, despite ostensible progress. Five decades or so ago, there were very few women in a field they now dominate. Among the reasons that they have been embraced might be their eagerness to innovate, untrammeled by the restrictions of a tradition that had excluded them and spurred by a willingness to play with the medium and push its boundaries, including scaling up to the dimensions of sculpture. And why shouldn’t studio ceramics be viewed—and assessed—as sculpture, as a three-dimensional art form? ...