Minoru Ohira

OHIRA Minoru

by FUKUNAGA Osamu, Deputy Director/Chief Curator, The National Art Center, Tokyo
Translated by Christopher Stephens

     The first time I met Ohira Minoru was early in the fall of 1993, the season in which the Santa Ana winds that so often appear in the artist's titles tend to blow. At that time, having lived for winds, Ohira had already developed his own original style and was spending most his time working at his studio in Pasadena. In fact, my image of the man is exactly the same as it was then. Visiting him on one of my occasional trips to Los Angeles of meeting him here in Japan once every few years, there wasn't any noticeable change in Ohira's speed of life.   His works are also much the same, as he has repeatedly concentrated on a few different types, and works with similar forms reappear some years later. Though this might only be my own preconceived notion, whenever and whenever one sees Ohira's recent works, they seem to exude a sense of the clear blue skies and refreshing winds of the West Coast. And in observing his work, I find that these ideas of “continuance” and “cyclicality” serve as useful points of reference.

     Born in 1950 in what was then Murokawa Village, Kitakanbara County, Niigata Prefecture but is now the city of Tainai. Ohira studied sculpture at the Kanazawa College of art. He went on to complete a graduate course at Tokyo University of the Arts, and then in 1979, moved to Mexico, where he studied for three years at the La Esmeralda National School of Painting, Sculpture, and Engraving. Unfortunately, I’ve never heard a detailed account of the artist’s time there, but as has been suggested in the past, the climate of the region combined with Ohira’s strong interest in the Maya and Aztec civilizations had a clear influence on his subsequent work. The simplicity and easy-going quality of Ohira’s work is certainly different from the typical Japanese artistic mind-set there is, for example, a shared sense of primordial ethnic heritage. But, needless to say, there’s more to it than that.

     It is easy to imagine that Ohira arrived at his unique form of expression by feeding off the periodic changes in lifestyle and cultural experiences that arose out of relocating from Niigata to Kanazawa to Tokyo to Mexico, and finally to California, and establishing intricate links with these things. And when considers the differences between his current work and the stone and bronze sculptures that he created many years ago in Japan, it seems abundantly clear that the influence of his experiences in Mexico and his activities in Los Angeles were strong enough to substantially alter Ohira’s view of art. To these "moves" to foreign lands and "experiences" of other cultures, I would like to suggest an additional key.

Click thumbs to enlarge images
Tree in Desert #1   Cloud on Ground #2   casa #3  Santa Ana Wind #4

     Those who see Ohira Minoru‘s works for the first time might find it hard to believe, but they are composed of trees, slate, and glass that he has discovered in his immediate surroundings. Ohira also uses materials that have outlived their original function, such as dead branches from the roadside and scraps from construction sites, braiding or gluing them together into a work without tampering with their original essence. Among the works in this exhibition, for example, is one in which the artist sliced off some mill ends from a demolished house with a large knife, and broke them into chips, which he then affixed to a framework with glue, in this vaguely humorous work, there is a tremendous contrast between the gently curving form and its surface, covered with minute chips. The form of Desert Tree (#.1) suggests a titled sake bottle or a fishing basket, while Terrestrial Cloud (#. 2) resembles a short smokestack with open ends lying on its side. House (#, 3) has an umbrella-like shape and Santa Ana Wind (#. 4) is an odd-looking form that recalls an elephant trunk handing on the wall or the path of a seasonal wind that has blown in from the desert. All of these huge works were specifically created with the museums exhibition spaces in mind.

  fission #2   fission #3   fission #3   detail  #.5    
     Earlier I mentioned that there is a sense of "cyclicality" in Ohira's works, but the beginnings of this tendency can be found in the relief (#. 5) which the artist assembled out of natural wood with string or glue while living in Los Angeles in the early 80s. In Mexico, Ohira had studied prints and became familiar with lithography and drawing techniques, but this led him to attach dead branches to the canvas, and then developed into his relief. Depending on one’s perspective, his later three-dimensional works, which are attached to the wall, might be seen as having evolved out of the planar works, in the plain, light pieces of this era one recognizes simple familiar forms such as bird nests and ordinary woven baskets.
  "Though slightly redundant, to avoid any misunderstanding. I'd like to add here that Ohira's work makes use of extremely modern artistic methods such as assemblage and collage.
  With these transitions in sculptural technique and materials as a backdrop, it is important to once again recall Ohira's pre-Los Angeles experience in Mexico. Having headed to the country in the hope of meeting one of his favorite sculptors, Ohira came into contact with an essentially different type of art from the one that he had studied until that point, and as a result of witnessing it firsthand, he grew confident enough to believe that art could be created out of anything, regardless of the material or method. This realization was also prompted by his economic circumstances. In pursuing his new life in Los Angeles, the artist, who had found it hard to procure the materials he need for past sculptures, was drawn to the discarded scraps he found around him. In Ohira’s hands, building components or furniture fragments were recycled and reborn as works of art. The colors that remained on some pieces of wood were reminders of a previous era, introducing memory and time into the piece. The planar relief sculptures that Ohira produced in the early 80s gradually gained depth and in time developed into three-dimensional works. Here, I’d like to take note of the "changer" in his production method and the "rebirth" of his materials.

  fission #2   fission #3   detail  #.6    

    In the 1990s, a number of variations began to appear in his work. Among these were three-dimensional works that recalled insect cages, which, like the relief, were made of linked twigs (#.6), objects that were fashioned in a rounded form with thin strips of wooden tape wound around them (fig.1), human-like figures made of slate (fig.2), works that combined wood and slate, pieces like the one in this exhibition covered with wood chips, and similarly, dice-like wooden blocks with completely covered surfaces, and more recent works with surfaces like polished lacquer. Many of the works that Ohira was involved in the 90s have continued to reappear in more recent years.

  Shape of Silence#3 fig.1   Warrior 1993 fig.2  Luna y Sal #87-3 fig.3

    On the one hand, he continued making planar works, but as early as the 80s, there was already some three-dimensional precedent for the aforementioned attached-chip method of affixing tightly-arranged, multiple layers of small pieces of bark, and in some of the works, also included broken shards of cups and glasses. In addition, among the works that combined wood and slate, there were some that made use of collections of bark that resembled broom ends, and others in which he affixed the pieces to create a systematic pattern (fig.3). Beginning with a 1988 exhibition at the Sakura Gallery in Nagoya, Ohira held solo shows in Japan at a pace of about once a year throughout the 90s, and in many cases, showed his three-dimensional and planar works side-by-side. I’d like to conclude by considering the Ohira’s “sculpture” and “planes”.
    In reexamining the 90s, the period in which Ohira established his current style. It is clear that in undertaking new challenger, he has developed a terribly elaborate approach. Unlike the simple pieces dating from his early days in Los Angeles, the craftsman-like techniques in these works truly stand out. Ohira apparently almost never uses rulers or squares, relying instead on his own sense of scale and immense amount of patience, could never have been realized without a precise concept and plan. The easy-going air that is common to many of Ohira’s works reflects the creative notions that he has acquired in the past, and is also derived from modern sculptural techniques. To the so-called “warp” representing the life experiences and foreign cultures he has encountered, Ohira Minoru, an artist who was born in Japan but moved to Mexico and the U.S., has added the “weft” of modern sculptural theory, and to this day, exhibits a conspicuous originality.