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MFA Spotlights Decorative Arts

By C.E. Chiemeka Ezie, Crimson Staff Writer

While the term "fine art" typically conjures up images of oil canvases and watercolors from centuries past, the Museum of Fine Art opened an exhibit on Tuesday that showcases how media like bamboo and ceramics, less commonly associated with fine art, can be used to create captivating works of contemporary art. "Fired Earth, Woven Bamboo," which is on display through Sept. 8, 2014, contains 60 works of decorative art drawn from a recent donation of over 90 works to the MFA by collectors Mary Ann and Stanley Snider. The exhibit successfully drew attention to the contemporary harmony between traditional bamboo and ceramic art forms and the way they were used by modern artists for their own goals. While historically the primary purpose of decorative household ceramics and bamboo objects was functional, in the late 19th century this purpose shifted toward an emphasis on aesthetics and the materials’ expressive possibilities. The exhibit contains an impressive collection of pieces that embody this transformation. It also allows visitors to appreciate contemporary trends for themselves.

One of the strengths of the exhibition is its breadth of content; the works span the late 19th to early 21st centuries. The exhibition is also broad in the types of works that it displays, including some that are clearly rooted in traditional form and some that are influenced by post-modern rejections of established convention. One demonstration of the change of style across time is the presence of both a vase dating from the 1930-40s by Kawai Kanjiro and the 2010 work "Untitled MV-1019" by Akiyama Yo. While Kanjiro’s work, a hexagonal pedestal vase, maintains a functional capacity as a vessel, Yo’s work is ill-suited to serve the functional purpose of holding liquid. On an aesthetic level, Kanjiro’s vase boasts a seamless scroll pattern and neat appearance, while Yo’s piece is made to appear intentionally distressed and weathered. Another change shown in the collection is the increasing opportunities for women to work as artists in the traditionally male-dominated craft form of ceramics, as seen in the inclusion of works by emerging female sculptor Sakurai Yasuko and female ceramicist Kishi Eiko.

The exhibition also effectively conveys an accessible and informative history of the developments in decorative art over the past century. All of the works in the show have been made by artists based in Japan. The 20th century was a time of changing artistic sensibilities in the field of Japanese ceramics.

The exhibit illustrates the radical departures from centuries-established stylistic forms and the opening of artistic doors to creators who had previously been excluded from the field. Although contemporary ceramics and bamboo pieces coming out of Japan have a different look and feel than their more familiar traditional counterparts, they nevertheless require great skill in their creation. While many exhibitions provide accompanying wall text to support the works on display, "Fired Earth, Woven Bamboo" does an especially good job of guiding the viewer through the significance of the works on display.

The descriptive labels explain the procedural details of construction in a particularly engaging manner. Visitors to the exhibition can learn from labels placed near certain pieces about the planning and execution required to make them. A label next to his work describes how bamboo artist Honma Hideaki produces dozens of plenary sketches of a bamboo sculpture before starting the work. The exhibition also contains a video installation showing clips of both ceramicist Kishi Eiko and bamboo artist Nagakura Kenichi at work. Both of these artists have works in the exhibition, and the video allows people to witness their meticulous creative processes in action.

The diversity of the works is by showing the interesting effects that can be achieved by manipulating these traditional media. Traditional bamboo creations typically involve strands of bamboo woven together to create a solid structure, but Yamaguchi Ryuun’s "Fire" ingeniously leaves multiple strands of bamboo unbound in order to give the bamboo the appearance of a flickering flame. This and other works in the exhibition show how divergence from longstanding techniques can be used to create unique and captivating effects.

In a museum full of works dating back centuries, "Fired Earth, Woven Bamboo" stands out as a display of the innovative potential of modern approaches to traditional art materials. While exhibitions of this genre can sometimes seem overly esoteric to the average viewer, this show does exceptionally at presenting its subject matter in an engaging way.

—Staff writer C.E. Chiemeka Ezie can be reached at

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