Unexpected wit and humour on a plate

Michael Clarke

Michael Clarke visits the Japanese studio crafts exhibition at the V A.

Contemporary studio crafts are both widely displayed and greatly esteemed in the West, particularly in Britain and the United States, but outside specialist circles, little is known of them elsewhere. Japanese Studio Crafts: Tradition and the Avant-Garde at the Victoria and Albert Museum is the most comprehensive of its kind outside Japan and will, therefore, come as a revelation to very many visitors.

Gathering together the work of more than 130 craftspeople working in ceramics, glass, lacquerwork, woodwork, basketry, textiles, metalwork, jewellery and fibre art, it represents a diversity of approaches. These include those working in a still-recognisable East Asian tradition, others seeking to relate inherited, Japanese craft aesthetics to the demands of foreign markets, and a growing number of more experimental people whose work fits comfortably into international developments in the fine arts.

Among the last, there are frequent and unexpected bursts of wit and humour with built-in appeal to a British viewer, such as Toyuazaki Mitsuo's two-part installation, "Growth" and "Harvest", composed of green and yellow-dyed bundles of working gloves; the first in upright serried ranks, the second in a collapsed heap. Elsewhere, it is the elegance and refinement of pieces such as Nakayama Aya's sparely constructed necklace and brooch in gold, silver and polychrome lacquered rattan or the piquant combination of hard geometric shapes with soft organic ones in the richly decorated surfaces of either Furusawa Machiko's tie-dyed and hand-painted silk kimono or Fyjita Kyuohei's octagonal casket of gold and silver leaf with red and white glass that will please.

One aspect of almost all the work on show and perhaps the one with which young students of craft will most quickly identify is the respect for the nature of the materials employed. Shavings of Cypress wood and lengths of split root seem as naturally aligned in Sekijima Hisako's spherically woven basket as the serpentine grain and undulating carved surfaces of Toki Chihiro' chestnut-wood box. But a comparable sympathy is just as evident in the admixture of cotton thread and fine steel wire in Kumai Kyoko's fringed, minimalist relief, "Blowing in the Wind". Anticipating a widespread desire to discover how these fascinating objects have been made, the V A Education staff have made room for a bank of video screens and a practical working area within the exhibition space. During this month and next, exhibiting craftsmen and women will demonstrate their techniques with some sessions for schoolgroups and others for art college students. When no demonstration is taking place, videos will replay masterclasses and workshops. Gallery talks and a one-day symposium will pursue issues related to the exhibition.

The illustration is of a porcelain dish, one of the works at the exhibition by H Satin, 1980

Cromwell Road, London SW7, until September 3. Exhibition entry and workshop demonstrations are free to schools, colleges and community groups that book in advance. For further information, telephone 0171 938 8638.

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