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Member Monday – Onishi Gallery

Nakagawa Mamoru (born 1947), Living National Treasure, Vase Hayashi (Trees), 2019, shibuichi with copper, silver, gold and shakudo inlay

As exemplified by her current exhibition The Eternal Beauty of Metal, gallery owner Nana Onishi is a champion of Japanese contemporary metalware, an artform that was little known outside of Japan when she started to display these intricate and sophisticated artworks. Onishi first became interested in this category from her university professor, Nakagawa Mamoru, at the highly regarded Kanazawa College of Art. Professor Nakagawa is not only a master of the metal-inlay technique (zōgan) but when he was named a Living National Treasure in 2004 at the age of 56, he was the second-youngest to ever receive this recognition. He has continued to be a source of inspiration and support, as a few of his artworks, including Vase Hayashi above, are in Onishi’s present exhibition, on view through May 27.

Trained as an artist and with experience working as a curator in Japan, Italy, and the United States, Nana Onishi opened her gallery in Chelsea in 2005. Interested in bringing Japanese art to New York’s contemporary art neighborhood, her gallery exhibitions and special projects build bridges between Japan and the United States and circulate art and artists in both countries. In 2009, she was featured in Newsweek, Japan as one of the “Top 100 Japanese that the World Respects.” While Onishi focuses on collectors and museums in the West, her sister handles business in Japan at her gallery in Tokyo.

Nana Onishi (right) has a distinctively artistic style in her gallery displays, as seen in her current exhibition (top left) and at the Salon Art + Design Show at the Armory in November 2021.

Nana Onishi is particularly devoted to expanding awareness and appreciation of Japanese contemporary metalwares globally, and these endeavors have led to a number of interesting developments. One of the most significant is The Art of Giving, “a project to support contemporary Japanese decorative arts (kōgei) and promote American and European appreciation of Japanese craft skills”, which is supported by the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs (Bunkachō). One of the earliest benefactors is Kaoru Hayashi, Founder and Group CEO of Digital Garage, Inc., a leading Tokyo-based IT corporation. A collector of contemporary art, Mr. Hayashi arranged for the purchase of 18 metalwares from Onishi Gallery that were then gifted to the Metropolitan Museum, which provided the first works in this category in the Met’s collection and were on display in the recent exhibition Japan: A History of Style. (For more about The Art of Giving, click here.)

Not only has Onishi Gallery worked to expand international exposure of Japan’s Living National Treasures—works by nine of them were included in the recent exhibition—but she has particularly sought to promote the women artists within this group. The Living National Treasure system was created by the Japanese government in 1950 to support uniquely Japanese art forms and cultural traditions in the present and to ensure that they continue into the future. Only a few more than 50 LNTs or, as they are officially known, Bearers of Important Intangible Cultural Assets, are now living and so only the most skillful artists attain this venerated status. The number of women LNTs are very few in number. In fact, Ōsumi Yukie is not only the first female metalsmith named an LNT but she is the only one in this category. A master of the hammering technique and noted for works that often are decorated with patterns inspired by wind, waves, clouds, and streams, several works by Ōsumi can be seen both at Onishi Gallery and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The artist also published recently a book, The Soul of Gold: Tales from a Japanese Metal Artist’s Studio, now available in English with the translation by Joe Earle. (For more about Ōsumi Yukie, click here.)

Works by Ōsumi Yukie: L-R:; Silver Vase (Waterfall), 2011; Silver Incense Box Moon Palace, 2020; Silver Vase Araiso (Rough Shore), 2020

After The Eternal Beauty of Metal closes (for more information about this show, click here), Nana Onishi will turn her attention to her next projects, which will bring more fine and vibrant Japanese contemporary art to New York. This summer she will focus on the work of women artists: 4 metalsmiths—Ōsumi Yukie, Oshiyama Motoko, Otsuki Masako, and Hagino Noriko—and one potter, Tokuda Yasokichi IV. She also plans to have an online exhibition of contemporary kimono.