The Pace Gallery in Soho surprised me, perhaps because I’m used to seeing their website, which has a big international gallery feel, and their new and imposing flagship gallery in Burlington House, shared with the Royal Academy. So I didn’t expect a discreet, almost hidden door down a back street behind Piccadilly Circus. But I duly rang the bell and climbed to the first floor to find a spacious gallery which has apparently been there for years without my noticing. And a remarkable exhibition of Mingei.
Mingei means folk art, or perhaps the people’s craft. It’s a movement that was started in 1926 by Soetsu Yanagi, who set up the Mingeikan folk craft museum. Shoji Hamada, a potter and ceramicist I’ve often written about before, was a leading light and Mingei owed a lot to Hamada’s great friend Bernard Leach who was himself influenced by Japanese ceramics, especially the raku yaki style of pottery used in the tea ceremony.
As you’ve probably guessed from the name, Mingei champions the everyday, ordinary and utilitarian objects created by nameless and unknown craftsmen. Mingei objects are ‘natural, sincere, safe and simple’, according to Soetsu Yanagi. They avoid ‘dishonesty, depravity and luxury’.
Issues of Kogei magazine, edited by Soetsu Yanagi from 1935:
This museum-quality exhibition, curated by Nicolas Trembley, combines historical works by Japanese Mingei artists with works by modern artists who have been influenced by the Mingei movement. Some are Japanese, some not, but I loved the way they are displayed, in a long room with careful placing that enhances the works by juxtaposing them, sometimes in unexpected ways. The aim is both to explore the legacy left by the Mingei movement and to question the presence of craftsmanship in contemporary art.
Here you can see a mixture of modern design works – pots by Valentin Carron and paintings by Trisha Donnelly and Lee Ufan – juxtaposed with a classic design for strainers by Sori Yanagi.
And here an Ainu Attush, made from woven bark fibres, is placed next to Ruth Asawa’s Hanging Form from 1958.
As a big Hamada fan I was excited to see several of his works in the exhibition.
This tray dish is salt-glazed and the decoration was done by nagashi gake, pouring the glaze on, taking less than fifteen seconds. You need a steady hand and a clear vision for that.
I would happily give house room to this Shoji Hamada stoneware salt glazed bottle.
Bernard Leach gets a look-in too. This square bottle was thrown on a wheel and then beaten and shaved to a square shape. It has a black tenmoku glaze.
Textiles are well represented; this kawabaori is a chief fireman’s coat with the symbol in the centre representing water.
While this hanging textile is a boro, originating as a futon cover or other household textile and patched together with pieces of recycled fabric to make a work of art with its own history woven into it. The ceramics in front are by Sgrafo Modern.
There’s quite a lot of work by Sori Yanagi, Soetsu Yanagi’s son, who became a world-famous designer in the post-war period. This bent plywood butterfly stool is perhaps his most famous work.
While his stainless steel quick-to-boil kettle is still a bestseller.
And his bean-sieve basket of split bamboo, woven in a hexagonal pattern with holes just large enough for beans to fall through, is a design classic.
I couldn’t resist including this 1934 set of plates by Kenkichi Tomimoto.
The Pace Gallery is at 6-10 Lexington St in Soho and the exhibition is on until 18 January 2014. Opening times are Monday-Saturday 10am to 6pm.