Lisson Gallery

'Encounters With the Unknown' - Masaomi Yasunaga reviewed in The Nation

19 May 2021

As everyone knows, the affluent left New York City in droves during the coronavirus pandemic, taking social distancing to an extreme by decamping to vacation homes in the Hudson Valley and Long Island. The art market followed. Manhattan galleries began opening satellites in the Hamptons. For the most part, they seemed to be unimaginatively displaying stock on hand. I remember, last summer, wandering into one of the East Hampton galleries and striking up a conversation with the attendant, who explained to me that the random selection of blue-chip works on hand was the intended contents of the gallery’s booth at that year’s Basel art fair, which had of course been canceled.

When something unusual turns up in a context like that, it stands out. That was the case with an exhibition by Masaomi Yasunaga at the East Hampton outpost of the Lisson Gallery, the venerable London showcase for, mostly, conceptual and minimal art, which opened its New York branch in 2016. I didn’t stumble into this show at random, as with Vidales’s; an image in a press release caught my eye. Far from specializing in either conceptualism or minimalism, this Japanese artist, born in 1982 and living in the Mie prefecture, makes ceramics. But whether this is really the right word for his work is a question I’ll come to shortly. He makes things that are materially overwhelming and rough, though generally modest in scale. (The largest of the pieces on view is about four feet high, but most are much smaller.) Although mostly he uses highly irregular or distorted versions of traditional vessel forms, what’s immediately striking about the pieces I saw are their surfaces: gnarled, lumpy, dense with stones and soil. And then their shapes are extremely varied: Vessels, yes, but to characterize them individually might mean having to resort to far-flung episodes in the history of pottery-making—to speak of jugs, ewers, amphorae, reliquaries, costrels, or who knows what, and to draw comparisons with Greek or Pre-Columbian typologies as much as Asian ones.

Yet, in a sense, Yasunaga is a sort of minimalist. What he has minimized is precisely the traditional material of his craft, the very thing that normally defines it. His “ceramics” are created without clay. Instead, he employs glaze—the glassy substance normally used as an external coating to decorate and waterproof a ceramic object—as his primary medium.

In fact, many of Yasunaga’s objects look more like they’re made of unusually coarse concrete than anything else. I don’t really understand how he manages to coax a material that’s normally not self-supporting to hold these agglomerations together and function as the structural basis of his forms. The gallery press release explains it this way: “Combined with unique raw materials such as feldspars, whole rocks, metal or glass powders, Yasunaga’s forms are buried in various strata of sand or kaolin (unrefined porcelain clay) to preserve their structure in the firing stage. After cooling, Yasunaga’s sculptures are excavated from their beds in a studio process analogous to archaeological excavation and discovery.” In any case, the resulting objects don’t look quite like anything I’ve seen before. But the gallery’s evocation of archaeological finds is apt; encrusted as they are with pebbles and sand, one might well imagine that these objects had been dredged up from some ancient burial site where they have lain for eons, their forms distorted by the pressure of the earth’s weight as they’ve accreted all sorts of mineral substances foreign to their original makeup.

Looking at these rugged, powerful, encrusted forms that allude to familiar everyday functional objects despite seeming so alien, I couldn’t help thinking of Sigmund Freud’s recurrent comparison of his patients’ psychoanalytic quarrying of memories to an archaeological excavation, an analogy he always kept at the forefront of both his own and his patients’ awareness by turning his consulting room into a sort of miniature archaeological museum stuffed with antiquities. As one commentator on this side of Freud’s thinking has observed, the upshot is that “the repressed memories brought back to life and…pictures and relics of one’s past…are kept as museum pieces—carefully put out of the way from everyday business, but near enough for contemplation and further study.” Yasunaga’s works likewise seem to be about the structure of memory—how it transforms things in the process of preserving them.

Read the full review by Barry Schwabsky in The Nation here.

'Encounters With the Unknown' - Masaomi Yasunaga reviewed in The Nation
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