Kazuhito Kawai’s quest for ugly beauty in ceramic art
Ahead of an exhibition at Steve Turner Gallery, LA, Japanese ceramic artist Kazuhito Kawai discusses the origins of his deliberately distorted kaleidoscopic creations
Japanese artist Kazuhito Kawai’s polychrome clay vessels are quite spectacular, the cascade of small amorphous, textured shapes like lava rising from a volcano. Kawai’s path to ceramic art was far from linear. Born in Kasama, Ibaraki Prefecture, Japan, he studied at Chelsea College of Art and Design in London, graduating with a degree in fine art in 2007. That year, disappointed with his future as a artist, he returned to Japan with a sense of failure and spent several years in Tokyo. He remembers: “After I moved away from art, I worked as an employee [a Japanese term for white-collar employees that has pejorative connotations, describing men who reluctantly keep on with their boring routine]. But then I applied for a ceramics course at a local college with the goal of earning a living as a skilled craftsman. And the course was free! Kawai said with a smile, adding that Kasama, although less sophisticated than Arita or Mashiko, is a popular pottery region that specializes in producing tableware for everyday use.
The course offered Kawai something more than professional training. Once registered, he found his voice. “I was totally engrossed in building something with my hands. I felt so connected to the fine porcelain clay, which I can easily shape into anything I want,” he says. “I only use a potter’s wheel to make the bases of the vases, the surfaces of which I then reshape. The details you see are not added separately, but are an extension of the base itself. To achieve a softer, almost moist appearance, the oven is set to around 1200°C, a lower temperature than that used to cook functional tableware. Kawai gives texture to clay using tools unconventionally used in ceramic making, such as needles, tea strainers and mesh food covers. “The feeling of not fitting in always pushes me to create,” he says. “I was not destined to make ordinary pottery, and my hands chose to warp the vessels into something non-functional.”
Kawai is reluctant to define his work as art, which reflects an ambivalence shared by his generation. Born in 1984, he identifies as part of Japan’s ‘lost generation’, who came of age at a time of economic collapse and never really overcame this disadvantage. Longing for a sense of community, Kawai turned to J-pop and fashion. “As a high school student in a provincial town, I was obsessed with fashion magazines. While delving into the inspirations of the creators, I discovered many artistic subjects, and I was particularly transported by the book by Raf Simons The fourth gender, which showed me the art of adolescence,” says the artist, a self-proclaimed fan of the 1990s. He is also passionate about the conceptual fashion of Rei Kawakubo and John Galliano, but says he prefers to keep a certain distance its heroes, and does not seek to meet them. The designer he most identifies with is Masayuki Ino, who won the LVMH award in 2018 for his clothing brand Doublet. “When I see his humorous approach to the heroes of animation or cinema of our generation, I realize with relief that inspiration can come from something silly, not necessarily from sophisticated art!” he enthuses.
Kawai often brings wry humor to his ships. He mentioned Donatelle, one of his pieces straddling the border between the beautiful and the grotesque. “On my first visit to Art Basel Miami Beach, I was so amazed at the number of women with similar faces, obviously the result of plastic surgery. They almost invariably wore cup-sized pooches of tea in their Chanel bags. It reminded me of the plastic faces I’ve seen in some magazines. Their aesthetic standard is skewed. I found them so creepy that I wanted to see more and more of them. I would say that my curiosity overcame my fear. Kawai’s quest for ugly beauty in her everyday life also inspired a yellow piece called Liposomal Vitamin C. “Influenced by supermodel Ai Tominaga, I took this vitamin C supplement. When the powder is spread on water, it creates surface patterns that are too coarse to forget. It’s no surprise that he was inspired by the work of Paul McCarthy, and also credits Sterling Ruby with fueling his fervor for color buildup and burst. Another contemporary artist who freed Kawai from her lost generation complex was Tracey Emin. Kawai was so impressed with her 1998 video Roll for a fallin which she dons a cowboy hat and rides a horse in circles on a beach in an exercise in narcissism, which he borrowed the title from his last solo show at the Sokyo Lisbon Gallery last fall.
There is a psychological aspect to its inspiration, as seen in the 2018 artwork Hitomi Yaida, named after a J-pop singer. ‘Yaida has been criticized for copying already popular musician Ringo Shiina. In the meantime, my work is often compared to that of Takuro Kuwata, a Japanese ceramist much more established than me. So I thought, why not take it as a theme? There, I transferred the Kawai vs Kuwata relationship into that of Yaida vs Shiina. This practice allowed me to recognize myself clearly. In my work, the fingerprints are so visible on the clay.’
When I meet him, Kawai is preparing for a solo exhibition at the Steve Turner Gallery in Los Angeles. Among his new works is a dystopian black vessel with nails emerging from inside, named after Machida, near Tokyo. Most Japanese people know its name without having a clear idea of its atmosphere. “Machida is a big city, but it’s nothing special. It is a place of decline. I wanted to interpret the destruction that can occur in this kind of anonymous city. As references, Kawai cites the 1997 film by Harmony Korine Scrubset in a tornado-ravaged Ohio town, and Larry Clark’s book Tulsaknown for his candid portrayal of adolescence in the photographer’s hometown.
The more names he drops and the more references he tags in his Instagram posts, the more intriguing his works appear. You can search for anything, just like Kawai himself did a behind-the-scenes look at fashion design before the era of social media. The eternal artist of the lost generation invites us to surf on his references. §