Encounters with European Art and Design

by Natalie Baerselman le Gros

 

Makoto Kagoshima’s primary motivation in creating work is to generate a smile, his works make him happy, and his only hope is that it does the same for someone else. He intends no more than his works find their homes in people’s lives, as objects to enjoy or to use, as they wish. But to say so does little justice to the sensitivity of Kagoshima’s designs and the technical proficiency of his work.

Kagoshima’s primary medium is ceramics, his plates and bowls adorn the walls or table, to be admired as works of art or to be used as beautiful tools. Upon the clay surface Kagoshima delicately etches stylised images of flora and fauna that are highlighted in subtle yet contrasting coloured glazes.

The results are unplaceable and unmatched in style and appeal, playful and full of character, almost otherworldly, and yet thoughtful and seriously crafted objects of skill.

Kagoshima’s work has a simple draughtsmanship, featuring bold mark making, striking colour and a clean, charming graphic style that is reminiscent of the Japanese culture of Kawaii. He is not interested in the verisimilitude of his subject but instead to capture a sense of joy through an illustrative and pattern-like image. His renderings of animals and plants are often only just set in our reality. Kagoshima likes to embellish his drawings with an extra leaf here, swapping a petal there or showing an animal floating or smiling, so what you see is of his world, not the earth we walk upon, he is not interested in those things being recognisable. But perhaps they are recognisable enough to seem
a little surreal.

For Kagoshima, influences are varied and often by chance. They may include personal recollections such as the patterns in his grandmother’s and mother’s kimono collections, the drawings of animals in his childhood encyclopaedias or animations he watched as a boy. Or influences may be more worldly: the architecture and sculpture of ancient Greece, the rustic crafts of Spain and Portugal and ancient Mayan, Incan or Aztec imagery, the Arts and Crafts movement in the United Kingdom, and Scandinavian design. Kagoshima describes himself as an ‘idea magpie’, inspired by a great many things that appeal to his own style, not confined by any particular genre, geography or era.1 The Roman poet, Martial described the ceramic medium as the ‘vulgar magpie’, the great thief of the bird kingdom, setting ceramic as an artform that takes from everything and appears everywhere.2 A rather fitting animalistic analogy when considering Kagoshima’s work.

However, Kagoshima cites a key influence as the medieval Romanesque, explaining the European feel to his work. His imagery and ideology share a particular kinship with the natural and ethereal illustrations of plants and creatures from that time. Art that we describe as Romanesque is a product of shifting times: the decline of the Roman Empire and the broadening of Christianity across Western Europe. Artefacts that represented what came before were systematically destroyed. So, a new aesthetic was required, one which we can recognise echoes of in Kagoshima’s works.

The Romanesque manifested in various artistic and decorative forms and Kagoshima cites being inspired by the sculpture, architecture, and the interiors of churches and cathedrals of this time, all created by talented craftspeople: metal smiths, stone carvers, glass workers and artists of the illuminated manuscript. Despite the communication of new religious beliefs being the intention driving much of this new art, Kagoshima is intrigued by those artistic manifestations of religion that are in fact aesthetically rooted in the living natural world around us and the magical dream space beyond with their symbolic and story-telling qualities. Amongst the depictions of biblical stories and Christian figures, are frolicking animals, stylised plants, and organic patterns. Kagoshima describes the art of this period as wonderful and inspiring, and it is not difficult to see visual links between this historic context and his own work. As with much medieval art, Kagoshima’s modest illustrations are almost cartoon-like, they do not preoccupy themselves with realism but instead convey an animism. Through grinning faces, floating limbs, and overt symmetry, they appear unearthly and magical, suggesting that perhaps they have a story to tell. Similarly, there is little attention paid to depth or perspective, Kagoshima’s illustrations recall the overlapping one-dimensional flatness of the Bayeux tapestry. His compositions are governed by and confined to the boundaries of the ceramic form, characters contort and bend so as to not interfere with the edges we see, like much medieval art, there is little suggestion of a continuing world beyond the frame. Motifs are drawn with certainty of line, not sketchy or gestural, shapes contrast against a bold background, blocks of colour are deliberately outlined in a manner that visually links them to lead- lined stained glass. Kagoshima’s interest and inspirational pickpocketing of a variety of art and craft forms is reflected in his own diverse practice. Whilst primarily a ceramicist, Kagoshima has translated his own eclectic style into a variety of mediums: print, textiles, fashion, wallpaper, rugs, sculpture, production ceramics, and mural painting, he is a man of all mediums.

Medieval ceramic though, did not ride the grand upscaling of other crafts, largely because of a decline in the manufacture and consumption that had facilitated the ubiquity and uniformity of the classical Roman ceramic aesthetic. Ceramic production returned to a household activity, made and used locally. Makers reverted to fundamental techniques, modest patterning, and muted colours. We can feel ripples of this in Kagoshima’s work. Although his practice by no means represents an amateur’s art, he has often described his own practices as basic and considered as for beginners. Kagoshima utilises rudimentary, traditional techniques with purpose to achieve his wares: Kakiotoshi (scratching off of black slip with an instrument to create an image), sometsuke (painting on to white clay with natural paints), shitaetsuke (surrounding a painted underglaze pattern with black glaze) and rounuki (scratching a design into melted wax on the ceramic surface) are all ways of applying glaze and creating an image, either by paint brush or by etching the design into the unfired glaze. He uses untypical tools to create his designs: such as a dentist’s pick and the broken rib of an umbrella. There is something just short of serendipitous in this mutual use of uncomplicated craft skills. Despite their perceived crude nature, Kagoshima has mastered these techniques to the extent that a single design can be rendered in each of these ways to produce strikingly different results. His fascination for this artistry is based on belief in the practical and philosophical skill of the craftsperson and their tools and he celebrates the role of the everyday artist. These sympathies are clear where drawn renderings from ‘Makoto’s World’ are playful and cheering, whilst his dexterity in execution demonstrates a dedication to the historic techniques. In maintaining and elevating these primary skills of ceramic in Japan, Kagoshima upholds a sense of accessibility for admirers and future makers.

Medieval art, and ceramics in particular, was a cross-pollinated and migratory art, resonating with Kagoshima’s intentions for his own works as bridging East and West geographies and styles. Following Roman decline, Western Europe became a collective of nations, of interconnected but independent peoples. The skills and crafts they brought with them were similarly evolved over time and place. A new vernacular ceramic emerged that reflected this meeting of different styles and skills and philosophically represents a return of ceramic to the people who use it. Kagoshima’s meeting of multiple and varied visual influences demonstrates a similar boundary-less interest in arts from across the world. His tendency to mix this melting pot of imagery with a dedication to historic Japanese ceramic traditions manifests in works that have a universality and a worldliness that transcends geography and time. However, further than this, the artist has stated that he believes “there is no real difference in ceramics techniques from all over the world”.3 A striking statement when considering the strong stylistic and technical traditions within Japan but shows Kagoshima’s intention in transcending borders and geographical labels to embrace true universality, beyond even a simple binary of East meeting West.

Another of Kagoshima’s great inspirations, William Morris, took a similar interest in the arts and crafts of the medieval world, in his attempt to rally against an industrialising design environment in his own time. Medieval arts came to represent a sense of ‘value, authenticity and spirituality’ for Morris that he associated with a revival in craft practices and a recognised importance of skill.4 The resulting Arts and Crafts movement in Britain displays many aesthetic echoes to Medieval arts, in its stylised flora and fauna, repeated motifs and flat patterns, and implied narrative figures. Morris similarly worked across medium, designing stained glass, textiles, wallpaper, and tiles. In turn, Kagoshima’s designs in print and textile in particular echo Morris’ patterns. Morris stated, “real art must be made by the people for the people as a happiness for the maker and the user”.5 There is perhaps not a greater comparison between the work of Kagoshima and his influences in Morris and Medieval art.

But the universality that Kagoshima’s work represents, perhaps more than any other, is the innate human desire to decorate and embellish. Just as the Romans, the Medieval, and the Arts and Crafts movement did, to make joyful and beautiful even the most mundane or utilitarian of objects. For his own work, Kagoshima is not proscriptive about how people live with his art, whether they adorn your mantlepiece, or whether they deliver you your morning snack. Kagoshima finds beauty in usefulness, in something’s ability to be designed well and be aesthetically pleasing. His own home is full of objects that fit this bill. Some such are a collection of spoon rests, designed purely to prevent your spoon from touching the table whilst eating. But these curious ceramics, made during the Japanese Edo period (between 1603 and 1867) are decorated with comical characters, described contrastingly as sad faced ghosts or snowmen. Their use reaches far beyond utility, to spread delight and beauty, as do Kagoshima’s.

Makoto Kagoshima’s ceramics perform a role in binding artforms together, in diminishing any dichotomies of art and craft and feeling freed from geographical definitions of skill and heritage. His work bridges contemporary zeitgeist, traditional craft, utilitarian design, and historic imagery to create objects that are all appealing and all welcoming.

 

Natalie Baerselman le Gros is Exhibitions Coordinator & Assistant Programmer at Messums

 

Endnotes

1 Interview with the artist, 6 July 2023
2 Paul Greenhalgh, Ceramic, Art and Civilisation, 2021, London: Bloomsbury, p150
3 Essay by Emma Crichton-Miller, this publication, p16
4 Paul Greenhalgh, Ceramic, Art and Civilisation, 2021, London: Bloomsbury, p149
5 https://artscrafts.org.uk/ac/node/289.html

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