The Sodeisha ceramic sculpture at Newcastle Art Gallery still looks as bizarre as it did 40 years ago.
It still radiates an avant-garde boldness, much as it must have done when first exhibited in Japan as a deliberate reaction to the tradition-bound vessels of the Mingei folk art revival.
In the aftermath of the cataclysmic 1939-1945 war, a group of young potters in Kyoto, the convention-heavy former capital city, decided to use their skills to make a forceful break with the past. They were inspired by their new discovery of the whimsical abstraction of European artists such as Picasso, Klee and Miro to form the Sodeisha group in 1948 to create ceramic sculpture as freestanding art objects, completely without function.
An important criterion was that the works should have no mouths or apertures to suggest vessels.
As we see in the often playful works on view, many are constructed from slabs rather than thrown on the wheel; many are free form biomorphic shapes; others are finely geometric.
Not all are completely abstract, with several satirical references to articles of daily life: the tragic toilet table of a geisha, the shaped headrest, the pair of stringed instruments, the flattened western teapots.
Glazes can make ironic comment on the tradition of the ancient kilns, though a low-fired oil-black coating, developed by the Sodeisha artists, is a dramatic highlight.
The young potters had an astonishing ability to mimic the surface of materials such as stone, metal, rubber or wood. There are suggestions of bloodstains, as well as fairy tales and many intimations of a world gone mad.
It is still fundamentally important to realise the constraints of the ceramic heritage from which these works were in revolt. Ceramics, as we know, form one of the pinnacles of Japanese culture, with individual kiln communities establishing a tradition over many centuries and generations. Articles for the iconic Tea Ceremony developed a particular aesthetic of rigid formality with a rustic sophistication in ceramic tea bowls and water containers.
Founder members of the Sodeisha group were brought up in this tradition, with its leader, Yagi Kazuo (1918-1979), descended from generations of craftsmen.
It is notable that some of the Sodeisha artists also have earlier work in the Nagano collection of traditional ceramics held by the Newcastle Art Gallery.
One may well wonder how it comes about that Newcastle houses such exotic treasures. It was the quality of the traditional ceramics, donated to the gallery by Japanese firms involved in the coal trade in the 1970s, that persuaded the Sodeisha artists to choose Newcastle to host their first Australian exhibition, which toured Australian galleries throughout 1978 and 1979. Then in 1981 they presented almost the entire exhibition to Newcastle Art Gallery. The donation comprised 58 works by 32 members, including Yagi and the other founders.
Sodeisha continued to thrive and finally disbanded in 1998 after its 50th exhibition, having profoundly influenced ceramic practice in many parts of the world, including Australia.
Accordingly, the present exhibition, provides the original works with a contemporary gloss.
Spaciously displayed around the uniformly black walls, the original pieces are interspersed with contemporary work by five Japanese and five Australian artists who all take their ceramics into new territory.
With the very discreet wall labels, it can be difficult to identify the recent work. The Japanese artists follow the Sodeisha model of extreme technical prowess with emotional ambiguity.
The most obvious example is the room-sized installation by Satoru Hoshino whose connection with Sodeisha is longstanding, with a notable earlier work also on view. The walls of his new space are covered by swirls of hundreds of variously sized clay elements, each of them, like the central floor piece, deeply impressed with the potter’s thumb print.
The distinguished artist will be conducting raku workshops in Newcastle over this weekend.
The works by Australian artists also use clay in surprising ways. It is an element in complex installations by Juz Kitson, reproduces historic footwear updated by Julie Bartholomew and features in experiments with 3D printing of clay by Alterfact.
Penny Byrne’s ceramic work takes process a step further, using pre-loved porcelain figures to impart ironic messages about today’s news stories, acting out such issues as terrorism or asylum seekers with breath-taking effrontery, whereas the Sodeisha artists only hint at the post-war upheavals or the student rebellions in the world they lived in.
This is an important international exhibition which has attracted major funding from the Sir William Dobell Foundation. Will it tour?
Meanwhile, we and visitors to the city are given the opportunity to appreciate yet another aspect of Newcastle’s rich and varied art collection in these extraordinary and historically significant clay pieces fabricated 40 years ago by the revolutionary Sodeisha group, with its international legacy.
Newcastle Art Gallery, 1 Laman Street, Newcastle, is open from 10am to 5pm Tuesday to Sunday, and open every day during school holidays.