A new exhibit opening Sunday at the Walters Art Museum is an homage to unsteady hands and uncertain tempers, to chips and nicks, to the inconsistent and unfinished.
In "Designed for Flowers: Contemporary Japanese Ceramics," many of the 60 vases on display contain an obvious and intentional flaw. One artist, who is known for kicking each pot with a boot before it is fired, has deliberately gouged a small V-shaped segment from his vessel's rim. In a vase by another artist, the upper lip of the vase departs from a uniform circle and wobbles slightly. A third piece is a "vessel" that holds nothing, because it is just a few broken, painted chunks of clay.
According to Robert Mintz, the Walters' curator of Asian art, the exhibit represents one of the key principles of Japanese design, which "favors a little bit of asymmetry, favors odd numbers, favors the perfectly irregular."
The ceramics on display were created between the early 1970s and the present and represent about a third of the 170 pieces of pottery that have been bequeathed to the Walters by a Bethesda couple, Robert and Betsy Feinberg.
Robert Feinberg served as president and later as chairman of the Walters' board of directors between 2000 and 2006. The couple say they wanted their vases and pots to end up in Baltimore because that particular grouping of items is consistent with the museum's history and mission.
"The tradition of contemporary ceramics at the Walters began with [museum founder] Henry Walters, who collected them," Betsy Feinberg said in a telephone interview. "We wanted to build on the collection that the Walters already has."
Other aspects of the Feinbergs' collection will benefit two other American museums, one at Harvard University and New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. But Betsy Feinberg, who formerly taught blind children, has a special fondness for the ceramics. She likes that they're tactile and functional, and she finds them soothing.
"Bob and I are very particular, perfectionist type of people," she says. "We love the freedom we find in Japanese ceramics. We love that they aren't perfect."
Some artists included in the exhibit — such as Fukami Sueharu (in Japanese tradition, the family name is written first) whose streamlined shapes and elegant celadon glaze have brought him rock-star status in Japan — appear to actively court perfection. But even the piece that Fukami refers to as his "umbrella stand" has a noticeably uneven top rim.
The Japanese think that a crack or a chip sets up a tension that makes a vase or tea service more interesting, Mintz says. If the vase is perfect, our gaze might just skim over it without really taking it in.
"Designed for Flowers" is a celebration not just of flawed objects, but of the flawed and imperfect human beings who made them.
For instance, Hosokawa Morihiro, who is represented in the exhibit by a large beige and orange storage jar, served as prime minister of Japan from 1993 to 1994. He was in office for less than a year before he was forced to resign for accepting a loan from a trucking company with ties to organized crime.
It wasn't until Morihiro left office that he began to throw pottery. According to published reports, during his 18-month apprenticeship, the former prime minister lived in a house serviced only by a wooden outdoor privy, and he foraged in the woods for mushrooms for his dinner.
Now his pots are shown around the world.
"He's quite an exquisite potter, and he has an amazing sense of design," Mintz says. "He deliberately broke the lip of that pot and allowed it to become encrusted and cruddy. He's exploiting the flaws that occur in the fiery kiln environment, and yet, he is incredibly in control of that process."
The artist Nakamura Takuo takes that process one step further. He's not satisfied until he has created a vase so broken that it won't hold a single drop of water, let alone a blossom. The exhibit includes a piece titled "Vessel That is No Longer a Vessel" from 2007 that consists of two twisted and torn, unjoined shards of pottery painted on both sides with a vivid design.
Nakamura is known for his rich glazes, Mintz says, which are applied over a rough stoneware surface, creating a contrasting palette and textures.
The son of a famous ceramic artist and the brother of two others, Nakamura was by all accounts a late bloomer. He didn't begin studying the art form until he was 33 and didn't have his first solo show until he was 45. Now, in his late 60s, he is the son who has taken on his father's name and inherited his mantle.
Last summer, Betsy Feinberg spent two hours with Nakamura at his studio.
"He's such a vigorous person," she says. "He showed me how he makes his ceramics. He throws them around, he bends them and he breaks them."
Also highlighted in the exhibition is a triangular vase with a jagged end by the mostly self-taught artist Kohyama Yasuhisa. The vase, called "Wind," resembles a slab of concrete with a hole at one end for a single branch. Though ultra-modern in appearance, it was crafted using traditional techniques.
Kohyama worked in a ceramics factory by day and learned basic pottery techniques while attending night school, Mintz says. But something about the pots he made in a modern gas kiln left him feeling dissatisfied. He could introduce soot and ash to produce the pock-marked glaze he sought. But the results lacked energy.
After much trial and error, Kohyama built a traditional "anagama" or cave kiln — a form not seen in the area since medieval times. The pots he produced in his primitive kiln with its built-in lack of precision produced raves. Soon other artists began building their own wood-fired anagama kilns.
"Kohyama realized that not only the clay he was using, not only the techniques of building, but also the techniques of firing needed to be rooted in the past to have this ancient resonance in the objects he was making," Mintz says.
"The surprise is that what came out of his kiln in the end was an incredibly bold and modern expression."
Filling the vase
Now that you've admired that imperfect vase, it's time to fill it. Courtesy of the Walters Art Museum, here are some basic rules of ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging:
•An arrangement should have three primary branches: one high, one middle and one low.
•The central branch, which represents heaven, should be 11/2 times the height of the left branch, and should be at about a 10-degree angle off the vertical line.
•The left branch, which represents the Earth, should be 11/2 times the height of the right branch and at a 45-degree angle.
•The right branch, which represents humankind, should be at a 75-degree angle.
•Finally, add a few small flowers and stems near the base to complete your arrangement.
If you go
"Designed for Flowers: Contemporary Japanese Ceramics" runs at the Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St., through May 11. This is a ticketed exhibition; admission costs $6-$10; free Thursdays from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Call 410-547-9000 or go to thewalters.org.