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Shinichi Sawada’s Mythical Ceramic Creatures at Venus Over Manhattan

March 1, 2021

Shinichi Sawada working in the ceramics facility at Nakayoshi Fukushikai in Shiga Prefecture, Japan
Ceramic by Shinichi Sawada from 2019
Shinichi Sawada ceramic from 2019

By Abby Schultz

Collector and gallerist Adam Lindemann first came across the works of Japanese artist Shinichi Sawada in 2013 at a 55th Venice Biennale exhibition curated by Massimiliano Gioni, today the artistic director of the New Museum.

Sawada’s mythical, anthropomorphic ceramic creatures caught his eye as he was thumbing through a book of the Biennale that year, looking for inspiration amid a Covid-induced funk for what he could show when he was able to reopen Venus Over Manhattan, his New York gallery.

“There was a calming beauty to them that would be particularly well received at this time, during the pandemic,” Lindemann recalls thinking.

Venus Over Manhattan is holding the first New York solo exhibition of the 38-year-old Sawada’s works through March 20. The artist—who is autistic and mostly non-verbal—makes his whimsical creations at Nakayoshi Fukushikai, a social welfare facility he began attending at age 18. A few days a week in the morning, Sawada makes bread at the facility’s in-house bakery and in the afternoon he works with clay at an open-air, sheet-metal cabin in the forest near the facility, the gallery said.

The materials and firing process that Sawada uses to make his creatures are similar to Shigaraki, a millennia-old tradition, the gallery said. Although he works consistently, Nakayoshi Fukushikai’s kilns are only fired up twice a year, limiting the amount of work the artist can make.

Sawada’s ceramics resonate with Japanese otaku, which as the Japan Society explained in connection with a 2005 exhibition titled “Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture,” refers to a community “obsessed with darkly fantastic science fiction, video games, comic books (manga) and film animation (anime).”

The ceramic creatures, each about two-feet tall or in length, are inviting, yet odd— and maybe a little scary. Lindemann likens them to the monsters in Maurice Sendak’s children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are. But, “there’s a certain reserve, a gestural economy,” Lindemann says. His work has a “very Japanese feeling to it, of dragons and monsters, but there’s a soothing depth to them and they are very calming.”

As a collector first, gallerist second, Lindemann considers Venus to be a collector’s gallery. He focuses on art that he finds interesting historically, or, however “relevant and valid,” was overlooked by the art market. Among artists the gallery represents are Peter Saul, an 86-year-old Pop and Surrealist artist whose work can often be disturbing, and the artist known as Maryan (born Pinchas Burstein ), a survivor of Auschwitz, whose colorful abstractions are often overlooked.

Sawada is interesting to Lindemann, in part, because he’s an outsider artist—that is, he’s self-taught and not in dialogue with other artists. There’s a purity to his art.

“At this time when so many people are dealing with health struggles, and family issues, and financial issues, I just felt there’s a problem between the art world and the real world,” Lindemann says. “If art is just about money, then, it just feels out of sync with reality.”

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