In magical proportions Japanese metal artists mix gold and silver with copper to create uniquely coloured bronze alloys. This mastery of metal craft stems from a long tradition with both iron and copper as well as gold, silver and soft metals. As early as the 8th century, government ministries were established to administer the arts. It is from this time that two distinct trends in metal craft emerged: one centering on iron and copper, chado (the practice of tea) and agricultural implements; and the other on gold, silver, soft metals, Buddhist sculpture and regalia, swords and decorative objects.
Contemporary practice in metalwork expresses the continuation of this long established tradition. From ancient bronze bells to samurai swords, metalwork has played a significant part in the world of Japanese art and design. After 250 years of near complete isolation, Japan opened its doors to foreign trade in the mid 19th century. Large international art expositions, for example, Metalwork World Exhibition at Nuremberg in 1885, provided a reciprocal stimulus between Japan and the West. The era is often identified by the term ‘Japonisme’ and much of the innovative design of the art nouveau and art deco movements drew its inspiration from Japanese technique and design. These techniques and materials were quickly adapted by Japanese craftsmen and applied to objects with appeal to the new Western market. Coloured metal inlays and overlays on bronze and iron grounds inspired new designs in Tiffany silver for example, yet the composition of the specific alloys remained elusive.
The works on display in this current exhibition of contemporary Japanese metalwork challenge perceptions of what metal is and what can be done with it. There are examples of traditional coloured metal shakudo and shibuichi inlay in the objects of Nakamura Hirotomo, as well as inspired uses of traditional materials and innovative techniques in the work of Kise Hiroshi and Oyama Yasuyuki.
Nakamura’s work is close to the best of the traditional inlay work of the past, precise, beautifully coloured yet transferred to a modern idiom. Oyama’s bewitching combination of metal with urushi (Japanese lacquer) and consummate control of form produces sleek and sophisticated objects with alluring surface patination. Kise Hiroshi manipulates the deep beauty of copper using both its malleability and coloration to create exotic and dynamic forms with immediate and powerful emotional impact. Shimoyama Hiroyuki experiments with form and surface colour and patination to produce organic shapes expressing an appreciation of nature with a slight romantic and whimsical touch.
Kaneko Toru’s creates sensuous objects of subtle beauty and occasional whimsical form using indentation, plating and patination. A gentleness emerges in his work that lets the metal demonstrate its materiality through sympathetic forms and subtle use of the limited palette available. Mitsumoto Takeshi creates beauty from the inherent ‘problems’ of his techniques, and Kidera Yuko explores sculptural forms through inspired hand-beating practices. Koji Hatakeyama is challenged to reflect the potency of bronze casting in the contemporary world, and Iwata Hiroki plays with colour and form in fanciful enamelled objects. In individual interpretations, each artist challenges our perception of ‘heavy metal’.