Outsider drawn to the circle of life

Edward M. Gómez, The Japan Times, November 5, 2013

The discovery and promotion of works by self-taught or outsider artists — those who are not academically trained and create their works primarily for themselves, mostly beyond the cultural-commercial mainstream — are still relatively new activities in Japan. 


Against this background, the success of the self-taught, Tokyo-based artist Hiroyuki Doi is remarkable. Since late 2002, when New York’s now-closed Phyllis Kind Gallery first presented a solo show of his ink-on-paper abstractions, the now 67-year-old former restaurant masterchef has become one of the best-known artists in the self-taught/outsider category in the United States and Western Europe. As one of the rare representatives in that field from Japan, his work has enjoyed crossover appeal to collectors in the more avant-garde, contemporary-art sector, too.


Now, with “Hiroyuki Doi: Pen & Art,” a mini-retrospective of his small and large drawings of recent years at Pen Station Museum near Kyobashi subway station in central Tokyo’s Chuo Ward, the artist is enjoying both a homecoming to and a debut in Japan at the same time.


Doi’s first big break overseas came when he and his business manager and, now, Tokyo-based private dealer, Yoshiko Otsuka, made a cold call on the legendary New York gallerist Phyllis Kind in 2001. At that time, Kind was adamantly not looking at anyone’s portfolios. Her stable of artists was full. Still, Kind, a pioneer in the outsider field, examined Doi’s unusual drawings, in which agglomerations of tiny circles swell and churn, resembling grand, celestial constellations or billowing cloud formations. Painstakingly executed, their character is serene and meditative. At first glance, they seem to share a formal or visual affinity with classic East Asian ink-brush painting, but technically their mode of production is completely different.


From her home in San Francisco, Kind recently recalled her first encounter with Doi’s art, telling The Japan Times that “it was fresh and original, from a part of the world that was still underrepresented in the outsider-art market.” Kind showed Doi’s work at her gallery and at art fairs, as well as that of other Japanese self-taught artists. Today, in the U.S., Doi is represented by Ricco/Maresca, another top-ranking gallery in New York specializing in contemporary art by both schooled and self-taught artists.


Operated by Pilot Pen Corporation, the venue for Doi’s current Tokyo show normally houses a display on the history of writing implements, including, of course, Pilot pens. Doi’s exhibition is the first-ever art presentation there. It evolved as the result of a combination of happenstance and naievte.


In 2005, the exhibition “Obsessive Drawing” opened at the American Folk Art Museum (AFAM) in New York. It featured works by contemporary, self-taught artists that, strictly speaking, were not really folkloric at all, including Doi’s. In that show, the labels indicating the titles and materials used in the making of his drawings (usually Doi’s works are untitled) noted that he had used Pilot pens. In fact, Doi has always used only Pilot’s DR Drawing Pen, whose .005 millimeter, polyacetal tip keeps its shape and doesn’t dry out — dispensing its oil-based ink evenly until the last drop, which is vital to Doi’s work.


Doi and Otsuka visited the AFAM exhibition. Later, back in Tokyo, they contacted Pilot’s top brass and, following the imperatives of Japanese etiquette actually apologized on behalf of the museum for having cited Pilot’s product without the company’s permission. Such a gesture was completely unnecessary, of course. Instead, Pilot’s top executives invited Doi to present a solo show of his works at Pilot Pen Station. The artist, whose neck and wrist beads, vests and ever-present sunglasses give him the look of a 1960s California hippie, replied, “Thank you, but I’m not ready yet.”


Last year, the artist, who has no commercial or endorsement relationship with Pilot, was ready. He was motivated in part by a desire to publicly display “Hope for the Earth,” his largest work to date, in Japan. In response to the earthquake and tsunami that devastated swaths of Japan’s Tohoku region in 2011, Doi spent eight months creating the big drawing of a vast nebula of converging and drifting clusters of miniscule circles. A homage, he says, “to the souls of the many thousands who lost their lives as a result of the disasters,” it fills three side-by-side vertical panels, each the size of a traditional Japanese tatami mat (roughly 1.8 meters by 90 cm).


Doi has long used handmade papers from Ozu Washi, a store in Tokyo’s Nihonbashi district that opened in 1653. Yukihiro Nishimoto, a subsection chief at Ozu Washi who for many years has helped the artist select high-quality sheets, points out: “The fibers from ganpi, a Japanese shrub, in one of the papers Doi uses, are short and tight, producing a smooth, luminous surface that is good for holding the ink.”


At his small, plant-filled studio in Tokyo’s Asakusa district, Doi described the evolution of his art. He observed that, for him, “using circles to produce images has provided soothing relief from the sadness and grief” he has felt since the death, years ago, of his youngest brother from a brain tumor. Since then, Doi has created works that have alluded, as he puts it, to such themes as “the transmigration of the soul, the cosmos, the coexistence of living creatures, human cells, human dialogue and peace.”


He believes that the most soulful, expressive artworks let viewers know that they were made by fellow humans, not by machines. Doi’s creations are the opposite of those contemporary-art products whose designer-marketers strive to eliminate any evidence of the touch of the human hand by sending them out to fabricators to manufacture according to their specifications. “I want to create works that will convey to future generations a message about the importance of this human touch in art and all communication,” Doi explained.


He said: “I feel calm when I’m drawing and I can work for long hours at a stretch. Normally I do not plan a composition in detail. Instead, each picture evolves naturally, spontaneously, and finds its form.”


Like relief maps of otherworldly surfaces, Doi’s compositions pull a viewer’s gaze in to examine the details of the richly textured forms he brings forth; they could be lunar craters, swirling eddies, surging ridges or gently arcing bays.


Shuddering at the thought of ever using a computer to make a picture, Doi said, “Drawing with just a pen on paper is something I feel I must continue doing until I can no longer do it anymore. By drawing circles, I feel I’m truly alive and a part of the universe. I’m very glad that I found this way of expressing myself, with these materials and through this humble form.” If that compulsion to draw circles sounds or feels obsessive, that kind of enthusiasm, Doi proposed, sounding ever soulful, might just reflect something of the life force itself.