There can be no greater example of the Japanese fusion of beauty and function, 用 and 美、than in the world of ceramics. Although China gave its name to porcelain when it was introduced to Europe, it is Japan that has explored and mastered the soul of clay.  As in all Japanese arts, there is an assumption of mastery of self, of the journey to mastery of material and technique being involved with a spiritual discipline, hence the concept of ‘dou 道’ pathway and its spiritual implications.

The words that convey Japanese aesthetics, those impossible to translate ‘wabi sabi’ ‘shibui’ ‘yugen’ ‘mono no aware’ , are inextricably linked with the practice of tea, chado, in which ceramics play such a large part. The beauty of a tea bowl is accessed by using it, not by looking at it. A vessel is only truly alive when it is being used- in cuisine, for ikebana, for sake drinking.

In the past, this association of beauty and function has led to a degrading of ceramic works as objects of ‘craft’, somehow less worthy than objects designated as autonomous. It is this distinction and associated denigration of artists of so-called functional objects, that Lesley Kehoe Galleries is loath to acknowledge. It is a distinction that was not relevant in Japanese culture until ‘interference’ by Western art theorists; a distinction that inhibits the appreciation of beauty in its many manifestations.

Beauty manifests in many ways, both functional and autonomous. From a centuries-old tradition of functional ceramics, Japanese artists began to experiment with ‘autonomous’ ceramic sculptural works with the formation of the Sodeisha movement in 1948. Much of the philosophical argument of vessel and non-vessel revolved around whether the object had an opening in the top or not: True ceramic sculptural art did not have an opening. In the ceramic works that we introduce, we embrace both lines of thought, appreciating each for its unique interpretation and expression of the artist’s creativity.

The 21st century has seen the Western world embrace contemporary Japanese ceramics as a significant part of contemporary art practice. This embrace includes both functional and non-functional ceramics.  In a new evolution of the genre, female artists, formerly forbidden to ‘touch fire’, are taking the lead in originality. It is, however, the centuries of mastery of material and technique, the centuries of sophisticated aesthetic practice that is expressed anew.


Lesley Kehoe