Celebrating the next generation of Japanese bamboo artists

by Gary Gach

Original article at Asian Art.com

In conjunction with Masters of Bamboo, the Asian Art Museum held a reception featuring one work each from ten artists considered to be the next generation of this truly amazing art form. This extended display was then kept for a month beyond the week of the reception (February 15–March 18, 2007) before the pieces returned to their owners. More important were the artists themselves, who were present at the event.

At the opening reception, artist Honda Syoryu, a disciple of Kadota Niko, addressed the large reception. He attested to the fact that the bamboo medium takes decades to master, noting that at age 55, he’s “finally about to graduate from of the realm of the younger generation of bamboo artists.”

He echoed the sentiment of his colleagues when he spoke of how the new Western market affords the bamboo artist the freedom to try things they haven’t had the courage to try before. “For me,” he said, “who spent most of my career making traditional flower baskets and offering trays, the encounter with this new American audience has allowed me to make a quantum leap in my art into the realm of free sculpture using the motifs of nature, time and space, and the universe.” Absent from mention was the reality that patronage in Japan is dwindling along with the space of a contemporary home, with seldom room for the luxury of a flower basket anymore.

A little later, we spoke with Nakatomi Hajime, a student of Sensei Honda. Although he looked the youngest, he was dressed in the most traditional Japanese style. Beside him, under glass, was The Sound of the Moon, an ovoid orb with a vertical cylinder down the center. On first glance, it looked very traditional next to many of the free-form creations on display, yet just a breath of modernity changed everything. The strands weren’t plaited right flush against each other, but rather had ample widths of space between them: thus, both the ovoid sphere and the concave cylinder could be viewed simultaneously. He compared the effect to jazz, whose appreciation consists in both the parts and their interrelation to form a whole.

We asked if he’d had an opportunity to see the work of Ruth Asawa while he was here. (Her major retrospective at the De Young had just closed before Masters of Bamboo opened.) His face lit up. It seems the artists all visited the De Young Museum and had their horizons widened to see her work and the catalog from her show. Mr. Nakatomi found her work wonderful and noted the similarities between her work in wire and theirs in bamboo. It was like a bolt of lightning, he recalled, to consider what a trail-blazer she was. He says he now lists her among his favorite artists, along with Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and Buckminster Fuller.

Speaking of great people, without question the man of the hour was Mr. Lloyd Cotsen, who invested his attention to this relatively obscure art form when its future was tenuous at best. For this special occasion, he offered Asianart.com the following statement.

“For better or worse, it seems to this outside observer of the art of the Japanese basket maker, the emphasis on a tradition is loosening, thus allowing a flowering of individual artistic interpretation, direction, and innovation. However the discipline and links of these new artists to the old ways are secured by the mentorship of their teachers and by the power of their basket-making heritage. . . . This ensures a continuation of the Japanese basket-making tradition, albeit with the recognition that the future ultimately depends on the creativity of succeeding generations.

“Mentors understand and protect the tradition. The next generation, represented in this exhibition, seeks to bend, if not break, that tradition. These opposing aims create a wonderful dynamic that can be seen in Japanese society as a whole and here in the microcosm of bamboo basket development.”

Also on hand at the event was Koichiro Okada, who worked closely with Asian Art Museum curator Melissa M. Rinne on the Masters of Bamboo exhibition, as liaison, teacher, and collaborator. He told us he agreed with Mr. Cotsen’s notion of a loosening of emphasis on traditional response. He finds it’s true now even in the most conservative school of bamboo art in Japan.

Mr. Okada notes there are two major professional artists organizations to which bamboo artists belong. “One group,” Mr. Oakada points out, “is called Nitten (Japan Fine Arts Exhibition) and the other is Nihon Kogeikai (Japan Craft Artists Association). While Nitten artists emphases ‘sculptural beauty,’ Nihon Kogeikai artists work in a framework of tradition and craftsmanship. The notion of a creative edge has been very important to Niiten artists, but it is also carries weight to the Nihon Kogeikai artists, especially in recent years.

“Two of the leading bamboo artists in the Nihon Kogeikai are Hayakawa Shokosai V and Katsushiro Soho. Both are Living National Treasures and both favor innovation and imagination in their works. Some of the artists who submit ‘old-style’ baskets recently have been severely criticized by these leaders, and as Mr. Cotsen points out, Hayakawa and Katsushiro nominated two of the raising young stars from the Niiten world for the ‘Next Generation’ event.”

A week later, we caught up with curator Melissa Rinne, and learned that the artists were not only able to absorb a diversity of art as well as meet collectors and lovers of this art form, but also to network amongst themselves. “The event,” she said, “brought together most of the important younger artists in this field for the first time. Though they all knew one another by name and by work, this was the first time that most of them had really spent an extended amount of time talking with their peers about their life work. There were very serious conversations about the future of their art forms, and the artists agreed among themselves to mount an exhibition together, which would be a wonderful breaking through from the traditional divisions within the bamboo artist community, based on the two major artist associations — which have fairly different emphases.”

Last but not least, also present and speaking at the event was Rob Coffland, owner of TAI Gallery, where Mr Okada works. Ten years ago, Lloyd Cotsen had asked him to look for baskets. He recalls he made mistakes at first — buying baskets simply because he liked them. Now he’s not only the expert in the field, but his gallery is in a unique situation of being The One to permanently feature this art form. Thanks to his good eye, sensitivity to the culture, nurturing of good working relations, and selfless devotion, visitors, collectors, artists, and the art itself are in good hands.

We might emphasize that the diverse bonds Mr. Coffland has formed with individual artists are as important as works exhibited or sold. As Lloyd Cotsen points out, “An art is nothing without its artists, for they are the ones responsible for the culture, tradition, and the creativity their work reflects.”