From left: Shinichi Sawada’s “Untitled (117)” (2006-10) and “Untitled (128)” (2010).
By Courtney Coffman
For the past 20 years, the self-taught Japanese artist Shinichi Sawada has sculpted ghoulish ceramic beasts that grimace, glare and gawk. The unglazed works, reminiscent of both Jomon pottery and anime, first garnered international attention at the 2013 Venice Biennale, and this week they make their long-anticipated U.S. debut with an exhibition at Venus Over Manhattan. For many of the 30 untitled pieces that make up the show — all of which were created from Shigaraki clay, known for its sturdiness and ruddy orange color — the artist stacked one beguiling face on top of another, creating totems of glowering eyes and protruding talons. To make his works, Sawada travels three days a week to Nakayoshi Fukushikai, a social welfare facility in Japan’s Shiga Prefecture that supports people with disabilities. (Sawada is
autistic and mostly nonverbal.) Situated among the mountains and surrounded by forest, the center includes an ad hoc studio with two hand-built wood-fire kilns that are lit only twice a year, a factor that contributes to the rarity of Sawada’s sculptures, despite the fact that he works fastidiously. As his ceramics facilitator, Masaharu Iketani, observes, “He does three to four hours of creative activity in the afternoon, without taking any breaks.” The result is a wildly imaginative bestiary that transports its viewer to a different realm, offering a welcome reprieve from our current one. “Shinichi Sawada” is on view through March 20 at Venus Over Manhattan, 120 East 65th Street, New York City, venusovermanhattan.com.