Even setting aside the well-worn debate between art and craft, ceramics is a unique medium because as old as it is, it is still used in kitchens throughout the world as an object of use for that most quotidien of tasks: feeding oneself and one’s family. My family’s own kitchen cabinets hold vintage Frankoma dishes, beautiful examples of affordable American design, as much as they are utilitarian food vessels. In modernized, factory-adapted versions of the same basic methods used since pre-history, red Oklahoma clay was shaped, fired, and glazed into shapes that best hold all my peas in one place.
In choosing these dishes from a limitless variety of options in the modern day American consumer-sphere, we had the opportunity to make an aesthetic decision. An aesthetic decision, but also a functional decision. We could have, if we truly wished to, decided to eat off of the surfaces of multimedia sculpture, or even painted canvases. But Frankoma hit the sweet point in our decision making process, between utilitarian needs and aesthetic preferences. Whether ceramics is more art or craft notwithstanding, we chosen these beautiful dishes because they were, to us, both beautiful, and dishes. Any other consumer with a kitchen of their own might not think so reflexively about their choices, but still, they make that same decision. They will pick one form of kitchenware over the others, because options are available, a decision must be made, and it is theirs alone. This confluence of preferences in a necessary, everyday object is what design is about.
The design of the pieces in the Portland Art Museum’s current show, Hand and Wheel: Contemporary Japanese Clay, curated by Maribeth Graybill, avail themselves of the most specialized aesthetic theory, both the localized cultural preference of wabi-sabi minimalism, and the advanced technique of yōhen “fire-changing” glaze coloring. But it also touches upon those more universally human qualities of design. Many of the works have very simple, utilitarian names than any viewer with a kitchen could appreciate: such as Shimaoka Tatsuzō’s “Jigusuri zōgan karakusa-mon sara” (Large Plate with White Inlay Flowers and Arabesque Scroll), or Yoshida Yoshihiko’s “Shino Tea Bowl”. But other works stretch the concept, moving from the design elements of ceramics out on a more aestheticized tangent. Nakazato Takashi’s “Karatsu Namban Slab Plate” is, at its most simple, a slab of clay, provisionally just as much a plate as a piece of plywood or a shard of slate. However, the curved edges, the textured circles that resemble the stains left by cups upon well-loved kitchen table top, the patina that resembles use, and the solid, steady weight of the piece, all draw us into thinking what a plate is really about. None of these pieces are for use in an actual kitchen–their fine crafting makes that apparent, if the curatorial vitrines separating the pieces from the viewer’s touch do not. But they draw us into thinking about the objects we do use. I thought of our Frankoma-ware, chipped and cracked, from being slammed about our sink and cabinets in the haste of meal preparation and clean-up. There is something beautiful in design, when it is removed from the sterile idealism of an Ikea catalog, and put into the messy repetition of a person’s own eating space. The basic constituting factors of a plate are merely lines, along which one may make experiments both aesthetic and utilitarian.
The work in Hand and Wheel reminds one both of the technical skill involved in producing such beautiful ceramics, and the end-use case of so much of ceramics design in our homes: the reason that this art form has become such a foundational element to human culture. Even in the most abstract pieces, such as Morino Taimei’s “Untitled”, a green glazed vertical slab with a curved, bowl-like depression, or Kawakami Rikizō’s “Wall Series No. 6”, a similar monolith with a set of stairs carved into a passageway through the piece–one feels that the shapes that surround our daily lives are those pulled from the earth and human history by a long genealogy of skilled hands. The minimal forms of designed kitchenware is an aesthetic to itself, and in the hands of a talented sculptor, even the most simple shapes can become a deep reflection upon our many ties to our objects.