IN the late 16th century, Korean potters were so famous for their artistry that some were kidnapped by the Japanese and relocated to Kyushu Island. By the 20th century, their reputation had dropped so low that it took universities to reintroduce ceramics as a bona fide art form in the late 1950s.
Chung Hyun Cho was one of the students adventurous enough to try out the new ceramics program offered. Enrolled at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, she ended up majoring in ceramics -- and finding her life's calling. She became a noted ceramicist and teacher, and eventually dean of the department of ceramics at her alma mater. Now, she is the curator of the show "From the Fire: A Survey of Contemporary Korean Ceramics" at the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena.
The show's 54 artists range in age from 30 to 80. Their work runs the gamut, featuring the familiar shapes of jars and teapots, the Minimalist forms of Ji Wan Joo and Dae Hoon Kim, and the fancifully sculpturesque, such as clay sheets scrunched into undulating folds by Il An Won.
Tradition is important to Cho, but so is innovation.
"The works were selected with reference to the incorporation of traditional technique in new ways and to the adaptation of traditional forms," she says. "In another words, we looked for works that reflected on the Korean root and rejected those that simply attempted to replicate older forms."
The idea for "From the Fire" sprang from a conversation between Bonnie Speed, a curator of Asian art, and David Furchgott, president of International Art & Artists, which organizes touring art shows. The organization sought a Korean curator for the job, and after an extensive search, they selected Cho.
Two years ago, the group contacted the Pacific Asia Museum about taking the show. "At the time, the Korean community was celebrating the centenary of Korean immigration to the U.S.," says Meher McCarthy, the museum's curator of East Asian art. "From the Fire" features "not only an area that Koreans have been very strong in traditionally, but it is contemporary and curated by a Korean, so there's an Asian voice for the show."
McCarthy says that Korean potters absorbed many Chinese influences, but that they added their own touches. "The Chinese invented the celadon glaze, but the Koreans introduced interesting decorative techniques," she says. "For example, the use of the inlay technique, the use of the underglaze red, under the green, were unique to Korea."
In finding artists for the show, Cho had the advantage of knowing many of them through the classroom (six are former students) and other professional contacts. She also studied catalogs of contemporary ceramics shows.
The curator sees her artists as falling into three general categories. In "Tradition Transformed," the artist works with traditional techniques in a new way; in "Ceramic Sculpture," the artist works stoneware into sculptural forms; and in "Individual Directions," the artist uses stoneware or porcelain in a a nontraditional manner.
Cho's work is in the first category. Her vessels are adapted from traditional earthenware pots used to store food, like kimchi. She also uses an inlay technique, called sanggam, from the Koryo Dynasty (918 to 1392) for decoration. In this technique, the pattern is incised into or scraped away from the clay body, then filled with a glaze that contrasts with the background color.
Then Cho adds her own touch by stretching and paddling the vessels into shapes of her liking, and by decorating with the sides with energetic curves that suggest blades of grass or ocean waves.
"I want my work to project an earthy quality both in the forms and surfaces," she says. "Scraping the surface enlivens these simple patterns of inlaid marks and further accentuates the vessel shape."
Her works have been collected by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the National Museum of Modern Art in Seoul.
Several of the selected artists have also studied in Europe and the United States, where the push to make ceramics a fine arts form began even earlier.
In "From the Fire," one of the most radical takes on ceramics comes from Jin Kyoung Kim, who has an undergraduate degree from Ewha and a master's of fine arts from the State University of New York at New Paltz. She wires together small, hand-crafted porcelain pieces to create lacy articles of clothing -- a see-through blouse in "Netting Clay I," a bra and panties in "Netting Clay II" -- then puts them on a hanger, as if to accentuate their wry emulation of the wearable.
But some motifs are carry-overs from the past. Kang Hyo Lee makes black and white pots decorated with fish and lotus flowers and pods.
Though ceramics has now achieved heightened levels of respect and popularity in Korea, Cho is drawn to the earthy qualities of clay.
"Clay is a humble and honest material," she says. "It requires me to sustain a serene state of mind. I have never regretted being a ceramic artist."
'From the Fire'
A Survey of Contemporary Korean Ceramics
Where: Pacific Asia Museum, 46 N. Los Robles Ave., Pasadena
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Fridays
Ends: Oct. 16
Price: $7; $5, students, seniors; free, ages 11 and younger
Info: (626) 449-2742; www.pacificasiamuseum.org