Through March 20. Venus Over Manhattan, 120 East 65th Street, Manhattan; 212-980-0700, venusovermanhattan.com.
It’s hard to choose the right word to describe Shinichi Sawada’s spiky, totemic sculptures. His earth-toned ceramics — which often have horns and claws, as well as multiple faces stacked atop one another or ringing the sides — could be beasts, except they’re not very menacing. I’d say monsters, but neither do they inspire fear. They’re not quite animals or spirits. “Creatures” may be the most apt — it speaks to the interplay between natural elements and feats of imagination.
Sawada, who is autistic, makes ceramics at a social welfare facility in Japan. His breakout came in 2013, when the curator Massimiliano Gioni included some of his pieces in the Venice Biennale. This exhibition at Venus Over Manhattan (organized with Jennifer Lauren Gallery) is his first solo show in the United States.
Along with his work, Sawada himself is frequently presented as a subject of fascination: a mostly nonverbal artist who works intently from an internal vision. That may be so, but his sculptures are rich with allusions. The cartoonish, sometimes possessed looks of his creatures recall imagery from Japanese mythology and medieval bestiaries. The spikes and lines covering their bodies suggest ritual scarification. The big eyes and gaping mouths of more recent pieces echo shamanistic masks from a host of cultures.
This is what makes Sawada’s works so compelling: They evoke other things while being unlike anything else. “Untitled (126)” (2010) reminds me of a tree, a fire hydrant and a bird, but ultimately it’s none of those — only an object of carefully wrought mystery. Like much so-called outsider art, Sawada’s sculptures are made in isolation, but they gain resonance and meaning in the wider world.