For the Times, not a review:
Wakon Yousai is somewhat unusual for the Upstairs Gallery, where painting is the usual focus. The exhibit highlights the rough, elegant ceramic vessels of local artist Momoko Takeshita Keane. Complementing these are two miniature tabletop “gardens” by her husband Marc, a landscape architect and a writer. The work mixes cultural influences: Japanese and Western, traditional and modern, craft and fine art. The show’s title is a pun on a 19th century Japanese expression expressing the goal of reconciling traditional values with the new Western technologies. In the Keanes’ version, the phrase—pronounced the same way but with two out of the four kanji characters changed—takes on a related but different meaning: Japanese “roots” combined with western “color”. The literal colors though are traditional: earthy and restrained.Below: Scarf Vase
I recently spoke with both artists at the gallery. Momoko’s English was limited, so much of the time, Marc spoke on her behalf. Our conversation was informal and meandering; the following is an attempt to distill the most relevant parts.
Both artists have deep roots in the culture and aesthetics of Japan. Momoko was born in Kyoto and studied her craft there and in the well-known Japanese pottery town of Shigaraki. Most of her teachers and peers were men. Eventually she set up a studio business in Kyoto. Marc spent a period of eighteen years studying and working in Japan, where he met and married Momoko. In 2002, he took a one-year teaching position at Cornell. The couple moved to Ithaca, along with their son. They were planning to go back but they liked it enough to stay. About two years ago, they completed a studio where Momoko now works. Importantly, this is her first solo show since then.
Momoko has found the change valuable. She stresses the greater openness and “exchange of information” (Marc’s term) among the local art community. In Kyoto, the system was rigid and hierarchical, with masters and apprentices. Here things are more fluid. There is less pressure here to stay within a medium, something borne out here by a group of small crocheted copper wire bracelets. There is also less pressure to make functional pieces, as a grouping of doll-sized clay jackets hints. But both artists also stress the ongoing importance of Japanese skill and knowledge for their work.
Her technique is largely traditional, typically involving coil-building and firing over several days in a wood-fired kiln. She is a traditionalist when it comes to materials too. There is little glazing in her work here, although the ashes from the firing give the pieces different patterns in browns and grays. She also prefers the rough, minimally processed quality of traditional Japanese clay. We spoke about the difficulties of finding similar materials from the northeastern United States.
This show has been an opportunity for Momoko. The onion shaped Scarf Vase 1 is tan and reddish brown in color. A pair of small, drop-like ash markings huddle together on one side, highlighted in cool, shiny white. Its size is typical of the work in the show, roughly the size of a basketball. Like many of her pieces here, it has a sculpted scarf wrapped around its neck, an anthropomorphic feature Momoko describes as a feminine touch.
The piece was recently purchased for the Johnson Museum, where it will join an excellent collection of Asian objects. Both the museum director Franklin Robinson and the Asian Art curator Ellen Avril were at the opening on the 30th of October. Avril saw the piece and thought the museum should purchase it. A couple, Bob and Kazuko Smith—acquaintances of the Keanes and established donors—stepped in and bought the piece directly for the museum, sidestepping the usual complicated acquisitions process.
Marc’s work here has a supporting role. He refers to his tabletop gardens as bontei, “tray gardens." The two pieces feel cramped and awkward in the gallery space. The Ploughman’s Dream II is the more impressive of the two. Encased in a a circular steel stray is a microcosmic landscape divided by a wavy clay wall. One side is inlayed with long, precisely cut slate blocks arranged in rows. The other side is oak bark. According to Marc, the piece is meant to represent a dialectic of wild versus cultivated furrowing. His other tray piece echoes traditional Japanese rock gardens and is framed in wood. He too spoke of his working method, which involves improvising with found materials.
Also by Marc is a series of clay kanji, attached to irrregular, plate-like forms. These he made in Momoko’s studio.The intent was to make the characters fluid and expressive, more like ink or paint than clay. He plans to make more, enough to spell out sentences. These he tells me are a purely modern invention, without historical precedent.