Venus Over Manhattan
Shinichi Sawada is a Japanese clay artist close to forty, diagnosed with autism. Three days a week he makes bread in the morning in a bakery funded by the government. The rest of the time he works on his sculpture, which tends to be moderately small and often suggests a mythological world perhaps close to the animism that permeates his culture. He is an artist of considerable skill whose work depends upon intricate detailing on the surface of the sculpture. While Sawada clearly suffers from an intellectual disability, his art practice makes him stand out as a person who has developed a remarkable independence in regard to his condition. We cannot say that this is the work of a naive or outsider artist; we must acknowledge him as a man stable enough to put together a body of work that is highly original, free of any leaning that would place him on the margins. In consequence, this fine show not only argues convincingly for an objective reading of Sawada’s creativity, it also demonstrates the breadth of involvement of contemporary art, in which judgment based on background must not come into play.
Much of what Sawada does feels like the development of a personal mythology; he has made, in part, a bestiary based on very old spiritual traditions in Japan. “Untitled (121)” (2006-10) looks like a lizard with a very bulbous throat box, its rounded head followed by a body supported by three legs on either side. The creature’s exterior is covered by miniscule protrusions much like pinpoints, but there is also a set of taller spikes, several on the back of the head and several following the center of its spine. We hardly know whether the origins of the figure come from an actual lizard, or whether this piece is entirely imagined. There is aggression in the sculpture, but it is relatively slight and eccentric, as happens in many of Sawada’s pieces. Another figure, “Untitled (130)” (2006-10), has a ferocious head with prominent eyes that make the piece look like a beast of prey, of a sort halfway situated between a genuine beast and something out of a nightmare. Its mouth is full, with what we aren’t sure (maybe a thick tongue), while numerous protrusions turn its body into something entirely aggressive. These sculptures owe some part of their form to nature, but they are also made up, imaginary and quite distant from anything we could recognize in life.
The vertical wood-fired figures, always a matte rust in color, might be temple figurines from an ancient sect. “Untitled (125)” (2006-10) is a figure whose front presents three flat faces, one fronting the head, one in the middle of the body, and one on the body’s lower end. There are hands with thin spikes for figures, along with a decorated pedestal. The aura of the sculpture is unruly but also very human--perhaps it is some sort of deity meant to address human affairs. If there is an eccentricity to this work and the others in the show, so be it. Sawada is not an artist who can be isolated by virtue of his condition. Instead, whatever idiosyncrasy we might ascribe to his creativity needs to be seen as due to his originality, which is more rare than strange. “Untitled (134)” (2019) is a ceramic head with bulging eyes, a flat nose, and an open mouth aggressively grinning with a full set of teeth. The spikes Sawada gravitates toward run along the top and sides of the head, once again investing its energies with aggression.
Sawada is relentless in his pursuit of a body of work that would only barely negotiate decorum. One thinks of the (more peaceful) haniwa, clay sculptures buried as ritual figures accompanying the dead in very early Japan. But Sawada is living in the present, in a culture that has distanced itself from the rites of ancient belief. So, his creative thinking might seem out of touch. Yet this is not the case; his art succeeds because of ideas and technical gifts. A number of the works might be described, at least at first glance, as pagodas or temples gradually narrowing to a point in the sky. It makes sense to see Sawada’s work as evoking more than the beastly; instead, it suggests an attempt to recreate a spiritual life by unusual means. The specificity of his workplaces it in a way of thinking particular to the artist himself--it is not so peculiar or so different as to deny easy inclusion in new art. Instead, it shows work we easily find feasible and attractive. While Sawada’s autism can be considered integral to his existence, it does not play a visible role in his work. This means that he has successfully negotiated a vision that resonates beyond the details of his life, as regularly happens in very good art.
- Jonathan Goodman, New York, NY