The exhibition currently on display in the Metal Museum’s Gasparrini Galleries is Tradition of Excellence: Japanese Techniques in Contemporary Metal Arts. This exhibition was curated by Hiroko Yamada, Director of HYART Gallery (Madison, WI), and was organized by Penland Gallery at Penland School of Craft (Penland, NC). The exhibition explores a variety of traditionally Japanese metalworking materials and techniques and how those are passed down – from generation to generation in Japan and across international boundaries. The exhibit includes the work of twenty Japanese artists and six Americans, all utilizing traditional Japanese metalworking techniques. Many of these techniques are uncommon outside of Japan and will not have been seen previously.
Yukie Osumi, Water Vessel, Lucidity, 2019. Image courtesy of Penland Gallery.
The curator of the exhibit, Hiroko Yamada, has made a point to emphasize the importance of passing along these historic Japanese techniques to new makers around the world. It was therefore important to include artists designated as Japanese Living National Treasures in the exhibit. The designation of Japanese Living National Treasures is part of a 1950 law passed in Japan called the Law of Protection of Cultural Properties. This law not only protected various objects, lands, and historic sites, but also traditional Japanese artistic skills, including metalworking. In order to preserve these skills, the Japanese government designates a small number of highly skilled individuals as Japanese Living National Treasures (1). This system allows for traditional Japanese artistic skills to be preserved for future generations and fosters competition among Japanese artists. The video linked below from the British Museum includes a clear explanation of Japanese Living National Treasures. The artists in Tradition who have achieved this designation are Norio Tamagawa, Morihito Katsura, and Yukie Osumi.
Yukie Osumi (b. 1945) was the first female metalworker to receive the designation of Japanese Living National Treasure, which she received in 2015. Osumi received her degree from Tokyo University of the Arts (Tokyo, Japan) in 1969. She went on to participate in numerous exhibitions and win awards for artistic excellence across Japan and internationally. Often, you will see her name listed as Osumi Yukie because in Japan the family name is always listed first. Osumi received her designation for the raising or hammering of vessels, known as “tankin,” and specializes in an inlay process called nunome zogan. Osumi’s vessels often depict natural scenes on the surface and are especially influenced by the movement of water (2).
When raising a vessel, the artist begins with a flat sheet – copper or silver are common materials. The flat sheet is slowly raised up in a series of concentric circles by hammering the flat sheet around a rounded or pointed shape. The sheet is hammered and heated over and over until the desired vessel shape is achieved. Zogan translates as inlay, and nunome deals with textile or fabric. So this inlay technique is also sometimes known as textile or fabric inlay, as it uses inlaid foil to create surface patterns and a texture that resembles fabric.
The artist creates a surface design by chiseling small lines into the surface. Then cross-hatching is achieved by chiseling over these same lines in a different direction. This is done several times across the surface to create a grid-like pattern. Then gold, silver, or lead foil is hammered and pressed into the cross-hatched areas on the surface. The foil clings to the grid-like surface, forming to the lines and pockets created by the chisel. The artist then removes the excess foil and polishes the surface (3). You can see Osumi performing this technique in the video below from the National Museum of Asian Art in Washington, D.C.
Museum staff were first introduced to this exhibition in May of 2019, while attending the annual conference hosted by the Society of North American Goldsmiths in Chicago. A small sample of this exhibition was on display at the Japanese Consulate as a preview to the opening of the full exhibition at Penland in October of 2019. The Museum felt it was important for a wider audience to be able to view and experience this work in person, and we were able to arrange for the exhibit to be on display at the Metal Museum from March 29th through September 13th of 2020. Sadly, the Museum had to temporarily close due to the COVID-19 pandemic before the exhibit could open to the public. We hope that very soon Museum visitors will be able to experience the exhibit in person. Until that time, a virtual tour of the exhibit is available here. Museum staff has also made available an online gallery guide and at-home education activity to experience some of the exhibit while the Museum remains temporarily closed.
(1) Scott, Geoffrey R. The Cultural Property Laws of Japan: Social, Political, and Legal Influences (2003), https://digitalcommons.law.uw.edu/wilj/vol12/iss2/23.
(2) “Osumi Yukie,” Onishi Gallery, New York. Accessed April 23, 2020. https://onishigallery.com/osumi-yukie/.
(3) Yamada, Hiroko. “Glossary of Terms,”Tradition of Excellence: Japanese Techniques in Contemporary Metal Arts, 2019.