Yūgen : Subtlety and Grace

Centuries of isolation from the wider world ensured that Japanese culture is unique and imbued with a sense of often understated style. Contemporary Japanese culture and aesthetics remain respectful of the past, but have a unique flair and excitement of their own. With artists honouring skills gained from years of apprenticeships, as well as the traditions and techniques passed down through generations, to create works of exquisite quality, Japan continues to produce artists that blend the skills of the past with contemporary insights, whilst staying true to traditional Japanese aesthetics. 
Central to Japanese aesthetics, Zen philosophy outlines seven principles. 
  • Kanso (簡素) Things are expressed in a plain, simple, natural manner.
  • Fukinsei (不均整) Controlling balance in a composition through irregularity and asymmetry.
  • Shibui/Shibumi (渋味) Beautiful by being understated, or by being precisely what it was meant to be and not elaborated upon.
  • Yugen (幽玄) Suggestion rather than revelation. Profound subtlety or grace. 
  • Seijaku (静寂) Tranquillity or an energized calm, stillness, solitude. 
  • Datsuzoku (脱俗) Freedom from habit. Unbound by convention. 
  • Shizen (自然) Naturalness. An absence of pretence or artificiality, full creative intent unforced. 
The exhibition ‘Yūgen: Subtlety and Grace’ explores the concept and application of this philosophy in contemporary craft.  The eight artists (including one duo) present works from a broad range of mediums, techniques and styles, that, whilst individual and unique, share and embrace a guiding philosophy.
Hideo Sawada’s beautifully hand carved figures are a matchless example of a modern application of subtlety and grace, balancing the abstract with the gentle suggestion of emotion and the human form.  With subtlety and restraint Hideo captures life with a calm and stillness not often seen in modern art. 



Unembellished silhouettes are brought to life with quiet and thoughtful applications of tactile, intimate surfaces, in the works of Kenta Anzai, Tetsuya Ozawa and Yoko Ozawa.  With Japan’s rich history of ceramics, it is no surprise that with three artists come three widely differing techniques and processes.
The true soul of Japanese aesthetics is present in the works of Kenta Anzai who mixes into his glazes, a small amount of Urushi, a wood lacquer, used in the creation of Jōmon pots over 5,000 years ago.  Kenta’s minimal forms bear an aged surface that takes months to complete, giving an entirely unique finish to his works. 


Working with black clay, Tetsuya Ozawa uses a traditional Chara glaze and technique called Kofuki, (a dusting of white soil onto the clay before firing) which creates a distinct, soft surface texture, like that of an abstract painting.  Tetsuya’s work displays a calming balance of controlled form and an almost architectural structure with inviting tones and earthy markings.


Yoko Ozawa throws spherical forms inspired by Yohaku (blank or empty space) which are then finished with a glaze made from yellow box ash (eucalyptus). Balancing perfection with imperfection, Yoko’s teapots are thrown to be perfect spheres, contrasting with the natural textures, tones and forms that she uses to finish her work, displaying an unquestionable understanding of control, balance and composition. 
The handles of Yoko’s teapots are finished with wood provided by Eugene Howard collected from the eucalyptus forests, which often becomes bone dry in the Australian climate.


Wood turning and chiselling duo Mark McGilvray and Kaori Takahashi - Takahashi McGil -  embrace the materials they work with, celebrating the ‘imperfections’ of knots and air-dried cracks to create both functional and sculptural works.  Displaying a clear understanding of their craft, Takahashi McGil’s works are perfectly unpretentious, yet present and strong. 


Combining a deep understanding of tradition with a contemporary approach, acclaimed washi craftsman, Wataru Hatano, applies additional Japanese materials, such as soil, konnyaku paste, persimmon tannin and vegetable oil, to washi paper to create works that push the boundaries of beautiful understatement, whilst fully embracing subtlety and a controlled composition. Through the innovative nature of his practice and the undeniably impactful yet subdued quality of his works, Wataru pieces are yet another example of the powerful and exciting work emerging from contemporary Japan.