Touching on themes from the play of surface textures to repetitive patterning, drawing inspiration from textiles and exploring nature, the human body, and even elements of the strange and grotesque, “Radical Clay: Contemporary Women Artists from Japan” shines a spotlight on women in Japan in the post-World War II era who have made significant yet underappreciated contributions to the ceramics field. Specifically, it highlights a body of work that’s innovative, forward pushing and masterfully unique—one that was developed in parallel with, but simultaneously separately from, traditional, male-dominated Japanese practice. Bringing together the work of thirty-six women artists, the exhibition offers a fresh and, true to its title, radical perspective on contemporary ceramic art.
In conversation with Newcity, Janice Katz, Roger L. Weston Associate Curator of Japanese Art at the Art Institute of Chicago, discusses creative processes, techniques, inspiration and thoughts on the current and future state of clay art as she brings to life an exhibition that spans several generations of established and emerging artists, all of whom break away from traditional constraints to innovate and create exceptional work. Katz provides a behind-the-scenes look into her curatorial process and takes us on a journey through the history of ceramic art. Importantly, she invites viewers to see these women as inventive contributors to contemporary art and appreciate their creativity and diversity of expression in the world of ceramics.
Can you provide insights into your curatorial process? Specifically, what guided the selection of these thirty-six women artists and what unique elements (themes or techniques) differentiate their work from conventional Japanese ceramic art?
In deciding the artworks to include, we were mindful to represent as many different generations of artists and styles as possible. We wanted to include those artists whose success has made them leaders in the field, but also up-and-coming artists whose work is less known, but are nonetheless doing very interesting works in clay.
As a group, these artists have a vision beyond what others are doing in the field. They are far less interested in or bound by tradition than many contemporary ceramicists at work in Japan. This may be the result of their training at prestigious art academies or work abroad, rather than apprenticeships at traditional kilns. This ability to innovate, to invent new ways of working with clay and glaze, and the skill of each artist to carve out their strength and process, is what makes these works so awe-inspiring and unusual.
Within the works in the exhibition there is a strong focus on surface, whether shiny or matte, as well as repetitive patterning—a nod to textiles—as seen in Kitamura Junko’s “Vessel 91-A.” Other themes include nature and the body, which are seen consistently throughout the show. And finally, there is also a strain of the strange or the grotesque throughout the exhibition—the pinnacle of that is Kawaura Saki’s “Looking for a Crush” that seems to be a beating heart.
Can you discuss the significance of focusing exclusively on women artists in the ceramics field, particularly in the context of their historical underrepresentation?
Historically in Japan, women have largely been kept apart from the creative process of ceramics, with limited access to kilns. And when they are involved, it is typically confined to menial jobs, like preparing clay and glazes, with little access to materials or kilns.
There have been a few shows of women artists before, and they have been done well. But this show is different. The Art Institute of Chicago has a history of being at the forefront of contemporary Japanese art. As a large museum showcasing artwork from around the globe, we can position these artists’ creations in a way that fosters a dialogue with contemporary art from around the world. Now is not only the right time to focus on women artists in this showcase, but we wanted to showcase how their work continues to fulfill its potential as cutting-edge contemporary art.
“Radical Clay” spans several generations of women contemporary artists. Can you elaborate on the intergenerational aspect of the exhibition?
The exhibition features artists of several generations, from the 1970s to today. Many of the younger artists are just making a name for themselves and have never been included in museum exhibitions before. And overall, the work in this show cannot be seen in many places, especially outside of Japan, yet. The established artists have definitely paved the way for the younger group, and their works share similar themes although the interpretations are quite different.
How does “Radical Clay” reflect the current trends in the global ceramics movement?
Some global ceramic trends including a focus on representations of the body, works that are an accretion of disparate forms, and the invention of new glazes and ways of applying them are certainly seen in the artists’ work throughout “Radical Clay.” As of now, only one or two of the Japanese women artists in “Radical Clay” have been included in global ceramic exhibitions. But I hope that will change.
What are you hoping the viewer will take away from this exhibition?
These artists are not just creating Japanese ceramics, but they are some of the most inventive creators of contemporary art.
Radical Clay: Contemporary Women Artists from Japan is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago through June 3.