Joe Earle, Terumasa Ikeda: Iridescent Lacquer, February 22, 2023

          Although undeniably revolutionary, Terumasa Ikeda’s use of numerals as decoration and his application of computer-guided laser cutting and ultrasound to the art of shell inlay in lacquer can be interpreted as only the latest in a series of conceptual, technical, and artistic leaps in the development of this ancient craft medium.

          Early humans at first chiefly prized mollusks for the high nutritional value of their tasty flesh, as witnessed in Japan by the existence of vast ancient kaizuka (mounds of discarded shells), first spotted by American scientist Edward Sylvester Morse as he gazed from the window of a train taking him from Yokohama to Tokyo on June 20, 1877. In additional to their culinary value, smaller seashells have also long served as a means of storing—and calculating—economic worth in many parts of the world including East Asia, where several Chinese characters (also used in Japanese writing) that relate to value or commerce incorporate the element 貝, meaning “seashell” or specifically “cowrie shell.” By forming tiny numbers out of different species of awabi, Ikeda reminds us that some shells were once coins; this facet of his practice also calls to mind senior contemporary electronic artist Tatsuo Miyajima, hi-tech like Ikeda but in a very different way, who uses LEDs flashing in cycles from 1 to 0 and back again, or at random, to express Buddhist ideas of the flow and span of time and space.

          A close look at the finest early examples of shell inlay in lacquer, for example the gorgeous decoration of the Chūsonji Konjikidō mausoleum, a twelfth-century masterpiece in the far north of Honshu (Japan’s main island), gives us a vivid sense of Ikeda’s forebears, forced to labor at an architectural scale in a remote location several weeks’ journey away from their familiar Kyoto workshops and struggling to fashion tens of thousands of thick pieces of this intractable material, using the simplest of tools.In subsequent centuries, fresh inspiration from the world beyond Japan stimulated new approaches to the use of shell as an artistic medium.

          Korean wares with bold floral inlay were one such stimulus, while lacquer imports from Ming China, treasured by Japanese aristocrats during the medieval period, as well as similar wares later offered in tribute from the Ryukyu Islands (present-day Okinawa Prefecture), showed artisans how much thinner slices of shell could be inlaid in black lacquer to create intricate pictorial and other designs. As well as copying this new style in smaller pieces such as inrō (interlocking sets of medicine cases), later Japanese lacquerers went further: Kiyosuke Somata, for example, invented a technique for inlaying minute pieces of shell into black lacquer surfaces to form intricate, non-representational iridescent micro-mosaics. At the same time, the vogue for inrō and other miniatures created the need for the wooden cores of works in lacquer to become ever thinner, a trend that Ikeda has taken a stage further.

          The distinction that some writers have made between earlier raden, using atsugai (thick shell) and later aogai, using usugai (thin shell), can be understood as a kind of dialectical opposition running through the more recent history of Japanese lacquer. Living National Treasure Gonroku Matsuda, the best-known twentieth-century master, tended to favor the use of thicker shell, as did Tatsuaki Kuroda, who often inlaid broad contrasted bands of a type of abalone that he sourced in Mexico to create a simple, bold effect, perhaps mandated in part by his association with the Mingei (“People’s Art-Craft”) movement. In contrast, Kagari Miyoshi, a member of the generation between Kuroda and Ikeda, has used thin shell backed by metal foils to create the illusion of a contemporary city at night.

          Ikeda’s inventive teacher Shinya Yamamura is another artist whose work with shell emphasizes its versatile polychromy and potential to create a world that is refreshingly free of even the faintest hint of historicism. He has instilled in Ikeda not just an extraordinarily high level of manual skill and devotion to total perfection but also the freedom to build on these qualities and open up the way to startling new episodes in the long history of lacquer in Japan.