January 17 through February 28, 2021
By JONATHAN GOODMAN, March 2021
The mid-career Japanese sculptor Miho Dohi had her first solo show in New York at Gordon Robichaux, located slightly quizzically on East 17th Street close by Union Square. Six sculptures and four paintings were presented, all of them small in dimension. Consisting of many kinds of materials, copper, cloth, wood, and brass among them, these sculptural works regularly seem to fold over in pleats, revealing different patterns and textures from every angle and level of the work. The pieces appear to belong to a larger, even international movement in sculpture, in which the art eschews formal rigors for insights more improvised and indefinite in nature, often deliberately disorganized. This informality may have social implications for some artists--a rejection of modernism in favor of the urgent disrepute of the street--but in Dohi’s case it can also refer to a word in Japanese word invented by her, buttai, composed of two characters--but- meaning “thing” and tai- meaning “body.’ The term, according to Dohi, indicates an object with the suggestion of movement; press notes indicate that, as she is working on the object, Dohi constantly uses different methods to create a work that cannot be seen or interpreted in one particular fashion. One imagines that the idea governing the artist’s procedures is the notion of impermanence or ongoing change.
butai 30 (2014), made of copper, cloth, and acrylic, resists easy description. A U-shaped object, the piece consists of panels on one side, and a doubled spoon-like form on the other, with a piece of gold-colored cloth extending outward from the bottom. The object is beyond naming or being defined, and that is part of its attraction; this is true of Dohi’s art in general. Its formal independence is impressive, in the sense that its resistance to meaning, even to any sort of historical abstraction, suggests that Dohi is given to making sculptures and images that are completely self-sufficient, lacking the constraints that come of influence. buttai 76 (2020), made up of numerous materials, including copper mesh, cloth, wood, and plaster, looks like a disheveled sandwich; the top presents a rounded plane of wood covered with a tightly woven pattern of string. Like the first work described, this piece doesn’t really align with something that feels actual, found in the world. Its self-reliance is not only a rejection of art traditions, it also is an assertion of nonsensical but visionary form. In a way, then, it is hard to defend or criticize it, especially in light of other, similar work coming from other places, including America.
The assemblage called butai 79 (2020), created with brass, aluminum, copper, wood, cloth, and acrylic, is a conscious jumble of small objects cobbled together that come close to looking completely by chance. The disparate pieces, individually taken, are undistinguished, but the completed sculpture possesses a haphazard grace. By relying on someone else’s authority and refusing to make coherent visual sense, this work reminds us that the avant-garde never is easily understood at the beginning of a new wave of form. The paintings, which can look like cutoff views of nature, are actually details of the buttai taken with the artist’s iPhone. Once again, Dohi is not relying on external references to create and make her point. Instead, the show demonstrates an enclosed world, in which form is not to be taken as an allusion to something else. Rather, it exists as an independent assertion whose reality is self-generated to the point where the artist felt it necessary to make up a new word for her work. This kind of autonomy, and rejection of the past, is showing up in recent art by other artists and demands that we accept its turn away from making sense. In Dohi’s case, though, the results are excellent. WM
Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications.
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