Craft has occasionally sought a status commensurate with that of fine art or an avant-garde in the 20th century. However, it is rare that a contemporary Japanese artist has followed an internal logic within his conceptual work to arrive at hand-crafted ceramics. This, however, is the present end point in the artistic practice of Nobuaki Onishi (b.1972).
While the conflating of the values of the various arts is usually attributed to developments in art dating from the late 1960s, it was in the Quattrocento that earlier debate clearly arose concerning what values were appropriate to each art and in which Onishi’s early work from 2004 is intricately woven.
The issue concerned the Quattrocento conception of the two sculptural modes: that of free-standing, fully three-dimensional sculpture and low relief sculpture. Leonardo da Vinci thought that the sculptor may claim low relief as a form of painting principally because it could be used to tell a narrative and operated in a near two-dimensional space impenetrable to the viewer. In essence, low relief sculpture could be understood as a kind of ‘fat painting’ and virtuosic painters such as Andrea Mantegna could play on the conflation of sculptural and painterly values in grisaille works like his ‘Samson and Delilah’ (c.1505). While the modern conception of sculpture favors the autonomy of the free-standing work operating in the real space of the world shared with the viewer, Nobuaki reengages these two sculptural modes and their relation to painting.
He did this by casting conventional quotidian items such as a pen or a rubber glove for his ‘Infinity Gray’ series from around 2004 and painted them with virtuosic flare so that those objects were visually indistinguishable from the object copied. In as much as the superlative painting techniques were addressed to the eye, the technical craftsmanship, the portability of the cast objects, their original utilitarian functions and their evident touch-ability, were addressed to the hand. Onishi left these visual illusions incomplete, however, and at some point in each work he would let the coloring fade to the clear resin beneath which gave the object its form as in ‘Yushitessen (Barbed Wire) (2006). The point, ostensibly, was to show up the illusion for what it was – an artful fabrication.
These ideas were honed in his ‘Dress’ series along with the pursuit of repetition. An example is his ‘Shoha Burokku’ (2006), cast from the concrete tetrapod structures placed along the shore board to limit erosion. Onishi left his sculpture uncapped at the leg-ends so spectators could see inside the structure to its smooth white surface although the outer surface was painted in trompe l’oeil fashion. In this sense the painted surface was the one common to painting or low relief sculpture though assembled into a three dimensional free standing sculpture. The four legs were originally cast from the same single leg and then conjoined into its final structure. What Nobuaki effectively achieved in ‘Shoha Burokku’ was an almost literal copy of the real world that made clear its artifice through its hollowness.
Onishi’s most recent work has turned to championing the value of the copy over the original. In the work ‘Chain/ banana, ice’ (2009) the artist continues to distinguish originals from his copies by inserting his hand-crafted visually identical bananas and ice cubes among the real things and filming the decay of those real things while his own fabrications retain their pristine forms and colors. The point, in part, is that the inorganic copies are infinitely more visually pleasing in the long term than the perishable organic originals and these engage, tangentially, through their subject matter, the 19th century shift from the art/nature opposition to the art/craft distinction in his ceramic works.
In ‘Pottery 1’ (2009) and ‘Pottery 2’ (2009) Onishi has set aside the fabrication of the living world and taken to producing ceramics in authentic materials. ‘Pottery 1’ comprises four small dishes arranged side by side and ‘Pottery 2’ three mugs arranged similarly. In the contemporaneous work ‘Chain/ banana, ice’ the subjects referred to their originals but in these ceramics it makes little sense to ask which is the original on which the others were based and which the copies. Each plate and cup is virtually indistinguishable from the others. Onishi has arrived at the easy duplication that many take to be one of the essential qualities of craft. He too has arrived at the rigid craft distinctions proposed by the philosopher R. G. Collingwood who described craft as a predetermined result through means-ends relations such as planning and execution. The exhibition title ‘Chain’ under which Onishi exhibited these ceramic works serves also to confirm such relations as the title implies both a succession of events leading to the present works from 2004 and also a concept of ‘servitude’ in which the creative process is circumscribed to the reproducible rather than the one off original.
The shift to craft becomes a way for Onishi to resolve the tensions of original and copy that had inhered in his sculptural works. Craft, because it obviates such tensions due to the reverence for replication, becomes conceptually alluring. Onishi has moved, then, from early works that cast copies from originals in which he had left the visual illusion incomplete to visually complete ceramics produced with authentic raw materials which are all conceived of as reproductions from the outset without reference to an original.
Matthew Larking is a lecturer at Kyoto Notre Dame University, Kyoto, Japan, and has written as an art critic for The Japan Times since 2002.
Images courtesy of NOMART, INC, Osaka.