Curator, writer and historian, working across the fields of design, craft and contemporary art.

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Nao Matsunaga: Major Progression

Commissioned by the Crafts Study Centre, March 2018.

There is a story Nao Matsunaga likes, which comes from the great jazz pianist Herbie Hancock. He was playing one night with Miles Davis, and the band was really swinging. “It was building and building, and Miles gets to his solo.” Then… oops. “I play this chord and it is 100 percent, completely, entirely wrong. The wrong chord. It was so, so wrong. I believed I had utterly destroyed the evening, like a house of cards.” You probably can guess what happened next. Davis paused, just momentarily, then brilliantly pivoted from the unexpected chord into a new flight of improvisation. He made Hancock’s blunder sound like genius.

The point of the story, at least from Matsunaga’s perspective, is that there are no wrong notes. It’s all part of a larger unfolding. He has been getting more and more in touch with this idea as he works in the studio, working instinctively, reactively. You might say he’s trying to be Herbie and Miles at once. Each mark he makes is an implicit question: can you top this?

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Matsunaga is aware that this attitude has a venerable history. Not only in jazz, but also Abstract Expressionism and its correlated developments in ceramics – Peter Voulkos and his circle – and of course in many branches of Japanese art. All are lineages which emphasize spontaneous creativity, freshness, the unplanned. These currents interweave, too. He was interested to read the liner notes for Miles Davis’s album Kind of Blue, written by another pianist, Bill Evans. Drawing a direct comparison between Japanese ink painting and Davis’ music, Evans wrote: “These artists must practice a particular discipline, that of allowing the idea to express itself in communication with their hands in such a direct way that deliberation cannot interfere.”

It’s interesting to be thinking this way in the 21st century, when we are all so aware all the time. On the one hand, we desire immediacy; on the other, we know so much, and can find out more any time we want. Matsunaga has responded to this condition, the mindset of the digital era, by deconstructing his own technical expertise, which is extensive. “So much of what I want is already there in the material,” he says, “and if I touch it, it gets lost.” So he has undertaken a constant cycle of deskilling and reskilling. For example, he has developed a process called “slap building,” which uses components roughly formed by smacking them in his palms. Unlike the evenness of rolled slabs, these slapped-together wads of clay are varied in thickness, and so move a great deal in the firing, an opportunity for happy accidents to occur.

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He has also invented a new type of embellishment that he calls “blanket glazing,” in which a thick chunk of glaze material is laid on a ceramic surface and then fired. It melts and moves without losing its original solidity, creating an effect somewhat like an impasto brushstroke. Matsunaga compares this unusual process to painting the wood elements in his sculptures – he jokes that paint is “just a room-temperature glaze,” and sometimes concocts his own with PVA glue and raw pigment – and reflects on his own increasing comfort with color. Early in his career Matsunaga was primarily interested in structure, drawing much of his inspiration from architecture and engineering. As a result, his work tended to be entirely unglazed, or rendered in monochrome white. He’s had to completely commit to his current, broad palette: “When you’re scared of color you either don’t use it or use too much.”

As one might have expected given his exploratory method, the forms that have evolved in Matsunaga’s studio of late have been extremely varied. There are objects that could be identified as “pots,” but they are fragmentary and impromptu in character, held up on stilts. A piece is hardly ever finished when it comes out of the kiln; that is just a jumping-off point for further improvisation. Rather than throwing or coiling a volume, he often builds it out of fired bits of clay that are glued or screwed together, more a woodworker’s vocabulary than a potter’s. He often bores random holes into the parts when making them, so that he’ll have a means to join them later on; in other cases he just binds them together with plastic zip-ties. Matsunaga has also been making tall columns, in both ceramic and wood. He tries to build these as quickly as he does the smaller works, in an effort to preserve a sense of intuitive movement. When he shapes the timber, he likes to chop with an axe rather than using a saw or chisel, yet another way to create an unforced and unexpected shape.      

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Perhaps the most characteristic works of this moment in Matsunaga’s career are a series of wall-mounted mask forms. He began these in odd moments while waiting for larger pieces to dry, and they perfectly capture the offhand brilliance of his current direction. They are marvelously suggestive. One could read them as faces, but only in the sense that one might find a face in a mountainside or a cloud.  Matsunaga likes this quality in abstraction – “our human eye’s ability to see anything in it” – and has a deep appreciation for its pervasiveness. From ancient Chinese bronzes to pre-Columbian pots to African woodcarvings, the mask often teeters just at the edge of mimesis.

It is worth noting here Matsunaga’s unconventional biography: he came to England at the age of 12, sent by his parents (organic bakers in Japan) to enroll at Summerhill, a progressive school in Suffolk. The Summerhill ethos is radically democratic. Students and faculty have an equal voice in running the school, and learning operates on a completely self-elected basis. At the tender age of 16, he left the school and went to Brighton, where he eventually joined the BA course in design and craft (noted artists Maisie Broadhead and Phoebe Cummings were in his cohort there). Eventually he got a Master’s Degree in ceramics at the Royal College of Art, not a bad pedigree for one in his line of work. But the idiosyncrasy of his upbringing and education stayed with him. Given his background, Matsunaga says, “diversity is the norm for me.” It has left him seeking connection.

The universal relevance that he finds in the mask, in the mark, in the material, all speak to this creative impulse. So too does his interest in gravity as a compositional force. My colleagues Simon Olding and Martina Droth and I invited him recently to make a set of “moon jars” for an exhibition we were preparing (Things of Beauty Growing, organized by the Yale Center for British Art, and on view at the Fitzwilliam Museum through June 18), based on the historic Korean porcelain forms. The black-and-white sculptures he made in response spoke to the moon in all its phases – as if the whole lunar cycle had collided into one image. Gravity, the force that keeps the moon in orbit, is the subject of the works. Propped up against their own slumping, lurching weight, articulated by rivulets of paint, they are poignant anti-monuments, which still seem to be coming into being.     

During my last visit to Matsunaga’s studio, in January, we spoke about how he makes choices. He embraces chance, and yet constantly makes decisions. It is a purposefully non-rational, ineffable, yet wholly absorbing way to work. He feels that he is getting ever better at it, partly because he has been on so many residencies – in Norway, Indonesia, the USA, Scotland, and elsewhere (even at the V&A in London, where he embarked on a “mythical beast hunt,” collecting images from across the collections – another search for universals). In each residency, he is dropped into unfamiliar surroundings and must immediately concentrate, immediately perform. It’s not unlike being a jazz musician on the road. And notice how it is the same dynamic as the one he cultivates in the studio, writ large: he puts himself into a situation and responds. Then he does it again. And again.

At the end of the day, Matsunaga realizes that the serendipity he seeks is just a breath away from arbitrariness. His recent output looks like his, and no one else’s. Yet every work could have turned out quite differently. Random? Maybe. But still so meaningful. He reflects that it’s not that different from walking along the beach, looking for the stone you like best, “for reasons deeper than thinking,” and putting it in your pocket, Months or years later, when you see it on the shelf at home, it will bring you back to that moment, that perfect day by the sea. Perhaps you’ll ask yourself: “why did I choose that one?” There won’t be a reason, but you’ll still know it was right.

WritingMarci LeBrun