For a group exhibition that focused primarily on contemporary Japanese ceramics, “Sea Change” strangely commenced with Octopi 4, 1990, an eerie atmospheric photograph by Kunié Sugiura. The print features two pale silhouettes of the titular mollusks, seemingly conjoined, against a washed-out sepia background. The creatures are floating over a mass of dark-gray liquid that’s being diffused from the center of the composition—perhaps a painterly pool of expelled ink?
This elegant study in tonality and form provided an ideal introduction to a show that explored tactility and the multifariousness of the ceramic surface—whether it is patterned, gnarled, scored, or polished—and the way such textures translate to other media, such as painting, sculpture (of the nonclay variety), and photography. Take the rocky, speckled exteriors of Masaomi Yasunaga’s humble nonfunctional clay, glass, and copper vessels—from the series “Empty Creature,” 2020—which were juxtaposed against Miho Dohi’s buttai 58, 2019, a headlike sculpture cobbled together from scraps of copper mesh, wire, fabric, and lumps of painted plaster that was suspended from the ceiling. Or, in a quieter mode, there was John Zurier’s distemper-on-linen After Jóhannes Kjarval, 2014, a glazy, grisaille abstraction populated by a sparse arrangement of rectangular brushstrokes and clumpy lines—an elegiac homage to an Icelandic painter famous for his otherworldly landscapes.
Yet beyond some of these more tantalizing offerings, the overlaps between the works of the young Japanese ceramicists and the other artists in this presentation—Westerners pulled mostly from Ratio 3’s roster—seemed tangential at times. Among the Japanese sculptors, there was a loosely shared sensibility of controlled de-skilling, an interesting take on a medium that for centuries in Japan was meant to reflect an utter perfection of form and technique. Kentaro Kawabata’s Batista 1, 2020, seemed like a smart hybrid of traditional process and material experimentation: The artist produced its scintiallating hues by kiln-firing a piece of rolled clay after pressing tiny fragments of colored glass into its surface. Yet one wonders what kind of dialogue was supposed to occur between Kawabata’s austere object and something like Barry McGee’s Untitled, 2021, a ceramic dish that features a comical illustration of a face culled from a ukiyo-e print. What McGee conjured in this modest piece was an ersatz version of Japan, stunting more fruitful conversations about aesthetic and cultural cross-pollinations that could have unfolded between the disparate works on view.
The history of ceramics is intertwined with transnational exchanges. In the nineteenth century, the elaborate pottery of the Meiji era aided in giving rise to the West’s obsession with Japan that eventually became known as Japonisme. And even though the structural logic of the exhibition placed the oriental against the occidental, none of the works could be traced back to their countries of origin in purely iconographic terms. The objects in “Sea Change” managed to hold their ground—they were intriguing not because of their makers’ countries of origin, but because of what the makers imbued their objects with: idiosyncratic style and inimitable spirit.