Tag Archives: japan

· Kazuhiko Ichikawa ·

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I discovered this artist on the increasingly international forum for handmade goods, Etsy.  First let me say that Etsy has made a turn for the better.  After its initial low-competition, high interest startup was a breakthrough in creating income to the fleet-footed, they chose to cash in on the press by inviting non-makers into the fold to mill seller’s fees. Every kitsch dealer, antique shop and importer on the net was eager to get a piece of the market, all of whom had vast experience with their own versions of online marketplaces, proceeded to the flood the contemporary handmade right out of public view.   Realizing their error, Etsy has refined the model, allowing visitors to quickly sort maker from supplier or reseller, retaining some of their credibility.  In its latest form it is increasingly international, and at present offers visitors place where merit and skill still have a shot at being encountered.

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With Kazuhiko Ichikawa and artisans of his calibre, this is a mixed bag.  Etsy, and the craft market in general, has a buying demographic that matches the economic scope of the creative class.  Seeking status objects that are clearly not manufactured yet concerned with integrity by avoiding egregarious objects of wealth, this group seeks a pricepoint that is challenging for craftspeople living in high-rent centers of culture and design to work with.  The skill and time required to turn heads sort of collides with the buyer’s reality that’s translated from proprietary search algorithms to notoriously poor sales for anything above several hundred dollars.  It’s a comfort zone that makes crafters who want to really elevate their craft rather uncomfortable.

In Japan, Ichikawa commands choice boutique display space, public notoriety and plenty of awards, but this does not translate to international recognition.  Placing one’s self in a global marketplace targeting the appetite of the creative class means matching your talents against skilled artisans with more affordable situations in Istanbul, Buenos Aires and Jatarka.  What this translates to is excitement for anyone who notices, creating good deals for shrewd collectors, when high end art jewelers like Ichikawa crave to move beyond a cozy established practice.  He wants a place among the legends, and begins to produce inspired, affordable pieces like this just to insert himself into the international market.

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His story is doubly interesting because we have a truly contemporary phenomenon.  In the history of Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and the related movements that swept parts the world, it is well known that no small influence came from exposure to the aesthetics and hand made goods of Asia.   Especially the opening of Japan, with its cohesive, still alive and kicking artisanal patronage system.  Legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright juggled debts from his risk-taking infusion of design into structure, by vigorously importing and trading what were then utterly rare and unknown Japanese woodblock prints, making a killing at the markup with an uninformed audience.  There’s also the very broad concept of void or blank space in traditional Chinese ink painting, which was the final catalyst (permission) that collapsed centuries of European stagnant reliance on icons and symmetry in art, and was synonymous with the rebellion of youth styles.  It is hard to measure the effect new ways of seeing had, in the tangle of new ways of living (major political shifts away from aristocratic governance, the transformation of industry and mass production), but they are tangible and remain intense in our aesthetic memory.

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And here we have the long term involution of a now networked culture (again, like the start of the 20th century, for better of worse).  Kazuhiko Ichikawa explains his inspirations are Art Deco, Art Noveau, he wants a piece of Rene Lalique’s crown.  What a twist, a Japanese artisan working with the permission and creative energy source of a really diverse exchange that his own culture helped introduce!  Moving in a complete circle from his own intimate connection with Japanese nature-informed design (he is on his second career after a long stint with greeting cards and stationary) he turns to his jewelry with a flexible, surprisingly youthful style.  He employs special metal alloys and techniques unique to japanese metalworking, such as keum booshakudo and mokume-gane, retaining in some pieces a clear cultural identity, while departing when he pleases using the classic design elements as his vehicle.

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Beyond all this talk of culture, I think it’s evident when looking at the pieces that any artisan who derives joy and freedom from their work delivers the same feeling within their work, for anyone to see.  Visit the artist’s shop here:  KAZNESQ

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Art Nouveau and Samurai Swords

It is well understood that there is a direct cause and effect relationship between the rise of industrialization in Japan and the explosion of an international philosophy of ‘New Art’.  By looking at the mechanisms of this influence, I hope to demonstrate the New Art was much more like a prophetic vision than an ephemeral moment to enrich antique collectors.

In the accounts of Art Nouveau and its related movements (Arts & Crafts, Craftsman, il Liberte, Jugendstil, Secession, Arte Joven, Art Nova and Stile Liberty) one is apt to run across claims that it is a spontaneous development that marked a transition period between classical academicism and modernism. But this stand-alone islander perspective hardly accounts for its genesis or its end. The genesis came with the arrival of photography and access of the West’s artists to the finer crafts of Asia, especially Japan. Previously, Chinese porcelain had long been traded, but the style was vernacular and limited to like items. The arrival of documentation relating to supremely technical metalworking methods, sophisticated print and painting techniques, and essentially an entirely different cultural take on both universal design principles and representation of the natural world set off an inevitable alchemical reaction.

Artists I’ve spoken to about the subject explain that there is a root distinction in the composition of academic European and traditional Asian art. After the rediscovery of proportion during the Renaissance, the West had until the New Art period essentially pursued rules of symmetry – especially with regards to a horizon line, with the primary divisions of fore, middle and background. The history of western art has very specific reasons for this development, and essentially it revealed the collective psyche of a broad pan-culture. The approach to composition was both taught and essentially instinctual. When it came to decorative items, we find the same absolute principles: symmetry, relief and depth.

The shockwave of cultural confluence stems from a truly novel introduction within Eastern art: the concept of “infinite space”, which essentially allows elements of fore or background to interact with void. This had also developed to an instinctual level in that pan-culture, and is found mirrored in their philosophy and calligraphy. In fact, one reason speculated for this key element of composition is the use of pictographs for writing, developing an ancient practice of ‘floating’ pictures over the top of other pictures, creating a conceptual intuition for layering that was independent of relativistic proportion.

Once Western artists became exposed to the successful break in symmetry a new dialect of visual language spread like wildfire, transforming every aspect of art. Curiously, though so distinct and widely embraced it is easily identified today, this paradigm shift was short lived, and like the swing of a pendulum modernism rose with a hard return to symmetry, replacing decoration with line and simple geometry. It was as though nature was erased completely from vernacular language.

There are many discussions on this, which make for good reading. In a nutshell, the fine craft epidemic was made possible by the last generation of traditional apprenticed craftsmen, who were widely being displaced by the rise of industry. Essentially, young inspired artists and designers found at their disposal droves of highly skilled master craftsmen, who happened to be unemployed. Little did they know they were living in a fantastic, singular moment in time. Beautiful dreams sprang up in the form of cooperative workshops, intentional artisan communities, and free schools staffed by true experts in design and the arts. This was the last generation of its kind in the West, and is the reason why the housing, furniture and countless other items are unsurpassed even today in their quality and appeal. They are haunting, specific to a time, a place, and a lineage of authorship – they are downright talismanic.

One can hardly blame the hopes many had that it seemed possible for revolutionizing and improving the quality of life in every home for the founders of the various New Art movements. Unfortunately the economy of scale would make its presence known just as quickly, particularly at its apogee of unrestrained, nearly viral transformation of life in an opposite direction – the prolific outpouring of weapons of war that came to occupy the awareness and industry of that same, once hopeful world.

Following the global wars manufacturing had completely disconnected from skilled hand-crafting, its mechanisms actually unable to incorporate it even if it wanted to. Modernism took an even more severe turn, moving from streamlined to simple, and was embraced, as Corbusier put, as a way to ‘clean’ cities and lives of the madness and ruin of revolutions. Modernism represented a desire to turn away from the past’s hopes and nightmares, and erase if possible all grandiose discussion of the big picture. It was successful, to a degree, though ask anyone about the terms ‘marketing’ or ‘branding’ and you will hear a crystalline linguistic litany that is truly global, and discover what you already knew – that the predilection for living by a totalistic view has never departed.

The New Art appeared to our most creative thinkers to be the obvious direction for a new, international visual language and they threw themselves towards it with magnificent energy. That their prediction was shut down so abruptly should not be regarded as failure. They were absolutely right about the most critical of concerns:

1. The viewpoint of New Art was genuinely better. It was altruistic and holistic – a model that provided meaningful, enriching work for laborers, a clear and signature identity for artists, and affordable works of art for the everyday home.

2. The connection between tradition and technology was possible, and even likely. The only thing the model requires is an abundance of free time that was once standard in agrarian life, and the related family-community basis of living that integrates work, leisure, social belonging, house living, cultural distinctiveness, and allows for lifetime learning.

3. The motivation of holistic artistry is infectious and inspiring.  Life is better when the things we do, make and own have something we can relate to and enjoy. Inspiration from holistic sources generates tremendous energy. The evidence is in the record of New Art – for just a few decades time, their artifacts are everywhere, and are still repeated throughout the diaspora of information.

For your enjoyment, and as an aid to reflect on the impact and prophetic properties of visual language, I give you a few of the innumerable sword hilts of the Japanese samurai, called tsuba. Each instrument of death is the record of the love and life of a village metalsmith.  Japan is an archipelago whose transformation from feudal life by the sword to nuclear accident in less than a century can help us create a clearer model of modernity. It can help to reconsider the Western spaghetti soup story of industrial transformation that leads to all manner of complicated and unfortunate conclusions. For all the talk, well, just look at these sword hilts and decide if we’re doing our best today.