In Hiroyuki Doi’s Tiny Circles, Expanding Miniature Universes

Edward M. Gómez, Hyperallergic, May 13, 2017

Art finds its makers in unexpected ways.


In Japan, Hiroyuki Doi enjoyed a successful career as a master chef at some of Tokyo’s top restaurants and, in his spare time, began dabbling in art by producing small spot illustrations — simple line drawings of common subjects, like flowers or everyday objects — for assorted publications. Then, suddenly, life’s unfolding drama led him to remove his toque, leave the kitchen, and devote his energy full-time to making art, a decision that eventually brought into being one of the more unique bodies of work to be found anywhere on the art scene today.


Now, Hiroyuki Doi: Soul, a presentation of Doi’s newest ink-on-paper abstractions at Ricco/Maresca, a gallery in Chelsea, offers an opportunity to catch up with the latest developments in the sprawling clusters of minuscule circles that have become this Japanese artist’s signature creations, and the determination with which he has continued to explore the expressive power of this distinctive formal language. (The exhibition will remain on view through June 24.)

The Japanese artist Hiroyuki Doi at a café in Tokyo, summer 2014 (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)


As a young man, Doi, who was born in 1946 in Nagoya, was interested in gastronomy, art, and culture. He made his way to Tokyo, where he perfected his cooking skills and became a chef, using his savings to fund fact-finding vacation trips to Europe. “I did some serious research about art and food, going to museums to see great Western art and eating meals whose recipes and ingredients I carefully studied,” Doi told me a few years ago during a visit with him to a Tokyo seafood restaurant operated by one of his friends. It was one of those tiny Japanese eateries that seat eight people at the most, the kind passersby who are not regular customers either overlook or hesitate to enter without being accompanied by an habitué known to the chef.


“I can cook Japanese and Asian food, of course,” the artist said as he poked his chopsticks into a doll-size serving of a delicate crab-brain omelette, “but it’s French, Italian, and Spanish dishes that long ago seized my imagination and became my specialty.”

Hiroyuki Doi, “Untitled (HD 2210)” (2010), ink on paper, 18 x 15 inches


Several decades ago, Doi was comfortably settled into his career in Tokyo when, suddenly, his younger brother died from a brain tumor. Devastated by his loss, the gastronomic adventurer turned to art-making for solace. He gave up his work as a chef but felt unsure about where his change of direction might lead him.


His close friend Yoshiko Otsuka, who later became his Tokyo-based business manager and art dealer, recently recalled, “Doi had been making paintings in oil or watercolor of flowers, foods, and other subjects; his circle drawings evolved slowly. He started making his circle drawings around 1985, but I did not see them until some time later. At first I thought they were weird, because I had never seen anything like them, but then I began to appreciate their energy, sensitivity and movement.”

The artist Hiroyuki Doi at work on one of his circle-based drawings in his studio in Tokyo (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)


Doi has written that “using circles to produce images” provided him with “relief from the sadness and grief” he felt following his brother’s death. Since that time, his circle motif has alluded to such themes as “the transmigration of the soul, the cosmos, the coexistence of living creatures, human cells, human dialog and peace.” Of course, the circle is one of the most basic shapes in nature, art and design. Powerful in its symbolism, it represents such resonant themes as fullness, unity, vastness, and even the fecundity of the protective, enveloping womb. Zen Buddhism’s influence can be felt in interpretations of the circle as a symbol of the universe or, by contrast, of the void.


Doi uses the Japanese-made Pilot brand’s DR Drawing Pens, whose polyacetal tips keep their shape. Unlike felt-tip pens, they do not become thicker with use or dry out, but instead dispense their oil-based ink smoothly until their last drops. Doi prefers a pen with a super-fine, .005-millimeter tip. Normally he draws on Japanese washi (handmade paper), including sheets made with fibers from the barks of such shrubs or trees as kōzo (“paper mulberry” in English), ganpi or mitsumata, which he buys at Ozu Washi, a specialty shop in Tokyo that has been in business since 1653.

Detail of one the artist Hiroyuki Doi’s drawings-in-progress, showing the tiny circles of which his images are composed (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)


Several years ago, Otsuka, a professional counselor for children, parents, and teachers, began showing Doi’s abstract circle drawings to just about anyone who would take a moment to examine them. Otsuka’s on-the-job training, gumption (which is not always appreciated in reserve-respecting Japan), and art-biz smarts became as integral to the chef-turned-artist’s tale as his decision to change careers and the peculiar evolution of his art. Today she runs Yoshiko Otsuka Fine Art International, a Tokyo-based company.


In 1999, Otsuka, who had lived in the United States as a high-school exchange student and later earned a degree at Columbia University’s Teachers College, traveled to New York in search of galleries to approach on Doi’s behalf. She knew little about the structure and dynamics of the art world. One of her New York friends recommended that she visit the SoHo gallery of the now-retired Phyllis Kind, who had long been recognized as a doyenne of the art brut, outsider art, and self-taught art fields. “I went to her gallery, but it was closed,” Otsuka told me in a recent e-mail exchange. “Still, through the window I sensed its atmosphere, and it felt good.”

Hiroyuki Doi, “Untitled (HDY 0315)” (2015), ink on paper, 15.25 x 18 inches


Two years later, Doi and Otsuka headed together to New York, where, with New York-style chutzpah wrapped in impeccable Japanese politesse, they showed up at Kind’s gallery without an appointment and asked to see the legendary dealer. Last week, by telephone from her home in San Francisco, Kind recalled, “The gallery had a full roster of artists, and I wasn’t looking at anything. But these Japanese visitors had come a long way and were carrying an intriguing, brown-paper package. I looked at Doi’s drawings and was astonished by the obsessive intensity of his work. Somehow he had made that intensity visible. His art offered a great example of something I had always looked for in any artist’s work — it was genuine.”

Hiroyuki Doi, “Untitled (HD 2210)” (2010), ink on paper, 18 x 15 inches


The drawings Doi showed Kind depicted swelling, churning agglomerations of tiny circles resembling celestial constellations or billowing cloud formations. Painstakingly executed, their character was serene and meditative. At first glance, they seemed to share formal affinities with classic East Asian ink-wash painting, but their mode of production was completely different. Kind went on to show Doi’s art at her gallery and the Outsider Art Fair. His works were included in the American Folk Art Museum’s Obsessive Drawing exhibition, which opened in 2005.


Since the closing of Kind’s gallery several years ago, Doi has been represented by Ricco/Maresca in New York; he has also presented exhibitions at venues in London and Tokyo, including Pilot’s Pen Station Museum, a company-sponsored art space in the Japanese capital (although the artist has no business relationship with the writing-utensils manufacturer, nor does he endorse its products).

Hiroyuki Doi, “Untitled (HDY 0115)” (2015), ink on paper, 15.25 x 18 inches


The images on view in Doi’s current exhibition offer some of his most voluptuous compositions ever, all of which seem to float and spread like galaxies expanding endlessly in the far corners of the universe. Doi’s strange, voluminous forms seem simultaneously alive and tactile. The fluffy subject of his “Untitled (HDY 0115)” (ink on paper, 2015) resembles some kind of bulbous plant slowly opening its protective husk to reveal an exotic, scaly core, while the jewel-like encrustations at the heart of “Untitled (HDY 0315)” (ink on paper, 2015) appear to swipe at the heavens with a right hook — or spill out from a tornado’s blustery cone.


“Soul (HDY 0413)” (ink on washi, 2013) may be the most luxurious doughnut ever to have emerged from the unknowable ether (or else it’s one of the universe’s more seductive, all-consuming black holes). Its fuzzy, round form finds its inverse reflection in the hydra’s tangle of outward-reaching, lacy tentacles of “Soul II (HDY 3014)” (ink on washi, 2014). By contrast, with their blobby charm and sprays of errant circles shooting off from their sides, “Untitled” (ink on washi, 2010) and “Untitled (HD 2210)” (ink on paper, 2010) possess both the sturdiness of otherworldly bowling balls and the gossamer lightness of big, overblown puffs of cotton candy.

Hiroyuki Doi, “Soul (HDY 0413)” (2013), ink on washi, 38 x 37 inches


In an e-mail message, Doi noted that he keeps up with current events, and that sometimes a bit of news inspires him to begin a new drawing. He indicated that his circle-making technique has evolved: his tiny circles have become even smaller, and his circle-derived forms have become more three-dimensional in appearance. Doi continued, thoughtfully, expressing the humanist spirit that pulses through his art, “Nowadays, people depend on technology too much. I know it’s important, but sometimes people rely on machines and do not believe in people.”


Through his own art, he explained, he strives to express a sense of soulfulness and peace, adding that he remains an ardent believer in the value and expressive power of handcrafted works of art. Then he signed off with some quick-note jottings that reminded me of the time he told me how glad he was that he had discovered art — and that art had found him, too. He ended his message graciously, writing, “This is my philosophy. Thank you very much.”


Hiroyuki Doi: Soul continues at Ricco/Maresca (529 West 20th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through June 24.