Los Angeles

Shigeo Toya

Thomas Solomon Art Advisory | Bethlehem Baptist Church

With their chain-sawed, charred surfaces and serial arrangements in blocklike masses, Shigeo Toya’s wood sculptures suggest a Japanese variation on Western Minimalism; it is as if works by Carl Andre and Donald Judd were suddenly imbued with a Zen-like “primal spirit.” However, instead of constructing sculpture from the inside out, so that material mass and volume are emptied out in favor of a skeletal space-as-mass, Toya’s guiding paradigm is archaeological. He excavates from the outside in, interpenetrating the material so that, by analogy, he inserts himself into its center. Toya himself describes this process as an attempt to “become the forest,” to create a “forest body.”

Toya’s chief inspiration for this strategy is the excavation of Pompeii, specifically the discovery of the human body overwhelmed by lava and ash, then dissipated from within to leave a fossilized shell. He explores this idea of transforming his own body into surface-as-trace in a pair of recent sculptures, whereby the artist acts as both excavator and excavated, cremator and cremated. In Twenty Eight Deaths, 1991, for example, Toya stacks 28 pairs of iron-encased wooden blocks back-to-back. On one side, he has burned holes into the center of each block with a blowtorch and charred each intersection between them, as if to create a weld. The other side of the blocks consists of a series of chain-sawed excavations, creating cavelike recesses. They are arranged sequentially, progressing from tight-lipped “mouths” at the margins to yawning orifices at the center, mimicking a silent scream, or musical notation. In this way, the wood is made to seem uncanny, as if speaking from the grave and making its interior cryptlike connotations startlingly exterior.

Toya develops this ambiguity of inside/outside still further in Spirit Regions, 1991, a string of 12 glass-topped wooden cases arranged at floor level, horizontally across the space. Viewed from above, the chain-sawed crevices now appear variously as bomb craters or caverns eroded from within. Toya links each block with a narrow tunnel running along the length of the work, which the viewer can look through by crawling on all fours. As visual spelunker, we see a long, gnarled intestinelike filament that seems to represent the fossilized remains of that which “gave it life.”

By physically carving an entry into the body of the wood, Toya appears to want to project his own body into it, in an act of self-negation. The outer surface of the wood becomes a stand-in for the charred fossilized body itself, defining death as an external sign and thereby demystifying it. By analogy, Toya’s own “forest body” is then rehabilitated from the abyss as material surface. Ironically, this surface, far from being the organic residue of a once-living forest (one conjures up visions of wood-sprites from Japanese mythology or Akira Kurosawa films), is actually reduced to a piece of commercial lumber, complete with leftover stenciled lading numbers from the Japanese docks or freight yards. Toya, for all his apparent concern with organic bodily “spirit,” would seem, at the root of things, to be a materialist in every sense of the word.

Colin Gardner