Many of the objects in the Walters Art Museum’s exhibition “Designed for Flowers: Contemporary Japanese Ceramics” might well function as vases, but almost all of them would upstage any flowers stuck inside them. The show features the work of contemporary artists, continuing and expanding a tradition that dates back to the wonderfully weird, almost expressionistic Jomon period (about 10500-300 B.C.), when vessels, sometimes with elaborately sculptural rims, were fired with patterns impressed on the clay.
The current boom in Japanese pottery dates to just after World War II, when cultural traditions were reestablished, often with a keen sense of what was developing in the international arts world. Many of the works on display are radically modern, resistant to interpretation or explanation, pure and remote in their silence. They want to exist only as objects and, especially for Western visitors unfamiliar with the forms and history of the art, they seem intent on living in isolation from each other. Some of them are so rough and seemingly primitive that they look as if hewn out of the earth, not formed by hand. Others are so perfectly polished and worked over that their elegance conveys a stern reticence.
Kohyama Yasuhisa’s “Wind” contains a small opening for flower stems on its smooth, irregularly shaped top, but the sides are rough with a jagged edge, as if a stonecutter’s work had been interrupted before a raw lump of material had been cut into a faceted gem. A 2005 vase by Funakoshi Tamotsu is even more strangely unformed, like a strip of rotting wood covered in fungus or mold, again with only a hole cut through its top to indicate its purpose and purposefulness.
Other works are so carefully glazed, so perfectly formed, so symmetrical or ideally round that they read like platonic forms for shape and volume. Strangely, these works convey an almost mechanical sense of finish. They feel industrial rather than handcrafted because the hand has so meticulously erased its presence. The only thing that keeps Tokuda Yasokichi III’s “Brilliant Glazed Jar ‘Galaxy’ ” from seeming cheap, like some mass-produced decorative object you might find in a hotel lobby, is the preposterous, even comical size of its opening. A tiny neck with a little hole rises from its perfectly spherical form, marking it as a vase of some sort, but also a problem to be solved, more of a riddle for vase lovers than an actual vase for flowers.
Other works seem to be in costume, mimicking other materials, not content to be seen as mere clay. A small seam runs down one side of Matsui Kan’s “Carbonized Flower Vase,” apparently joining the ends of one piece of clay into a wrapped form, like a heavy towel held to form a skirt. That small joint, left slightly unfinished, dissolves the sense of clay or stoneware into something else, like fabric or thick paper.
Some of the vases are content with their basic role in life and send signals only with their painted or textured surface. But many are playing games with the distinction between inside and out, surface and form, enclosure and open, unbounded space. Sakiyama Takayuki’s “Listening to Waves” makes its poetic reference explicit, but the sand-rippled forms that cover its surface also express a sense of limitless expanse, as if the piece is woven from some kind of geometric puzzler, a confection of M
Fujino Sachiko’s magnificent “Petal 2010-1” brings together many of the games the other works play in a singular way. Her white stoneware seems to be made of fabric that has been cut and hastily folded to create the lip of a vase, but it also folds in on itself, leaving you wondering where the inside begins and the exterior ends. And it is a magnificently made object, with a texture resembling a thin coat of refined sugar.
Part of the appeal of this exhibition is its gentle sense of disorientation. So much is encompassed by the idea of a ceramic or stoneware vessel, so much variety is possible within those confines, that you begin to wonder if the various artists could even use the term “vase” in a coherent, communicative way. There is an ideal underneath everything in these galleries, some mute, precognitive sense that every object here has something to do with flowers and beauty. But in many cases — and all of the best cases — it is a very remote connection, more like a poetic allusion to “vaseness” than an actual container for water, stems and blossoms.
“Designed for Flowers: Contemporary Japanese Ceramics” is on view at the Walters Museum in Baltimore through May 11. For more information, including ticket prices, visit www.thewalters.org.