In the Studio with Miki Taira and Robert Hickman: Making the Old New

th-featureSeeing an artist’s projects over time is the true test for all art. Goya and Velàsquez did much more than The Third of May and Las Meninas. Part of the adventure of being an artist is developing a body of work – continuing to invent new projects that somehow speak for themselves. Last month’s blog featured recent work by Risa Puno and Soo Sunny Park, both of whose art I’ve been following for years and whose work processes I find enlightening.

Upon meeting new artists and first viewing their work, it’s more of a challenge (for me) to understand all that each is doing. So it has taken me a couple of months to give myself permission to write about my single viewing of the arts of Miki Taira and Robert Hickman. Part of my fascination is that these two artists have dramatic and quite different approaches to the field, yet both use materials that are low to no cost – a theme I took in two directions last month that I’m taking in further directions this month and next.

I saw the work of Miki Taira ( and met this under 30 artist at Pulse. Born in 1984 in Tokyo, Japan, she began private lessons in calligraphy at age six.  While majoring in calligraphy at Tokyo Gakugei University, she discovered the abstract calligraphy of Inoue Yu-Ichi, Shinoda Tōkō, and Hidai Nankoku as well as artists including Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Cy Twombly, Antoni Tàpies, Lucio Fontana, and Joseph Beuys. In addition, she was becoming an expert on Japanese folk tales and their origins. In 2010, the artist studied three-dimensional dress making.

Taira’s work experiments with and combines all of these directions. She selects a story, then creates three-dimensional personages and animals out of hemp cloth died with barley tea. She next inscribes the folktale with a brush and sumi ink onto the surface of her sculpture. Since folk personages don’t have proper names, each work is faceless. Her superfine calligraphy script all over the bodies of each sculpture — which ranges from tiny to monumental — has another twist: it’s in varied regional dialects as well as in Japanese. English and Japanese translations are provided, but the art itself is about the difficulty of reading/understanding any story fully, how letters change over time, and other hidden and overt meanings. This art slows viewers down. The poignant to silly tales are beautifully inscribed.


Miki Taira, The Fox Wife, 2008. Linen, sumi ink, fur, 273 x 103 x 120 cm.

The Fox Wife (linen, sumi ink, fur, 273 x 103 x 120 cm), 2008 tells a Kagawa prefecture tale about Yasunari and his wife Kuzunoha.  Yasunari helps a white fox give birth in the forest and is subsequently banished for his good deed. The fox took form of his wife in order to see him. Yasunari was overjoyed to be united with his beloved Kuzunoha, and soon after, she bore him a son. Her son subsequently becomes an Onmyoji, the Japanese term for someone versed in fortune telling and astrology. In Japan today, the Kuzunoha Inari Shrine in Shinoda, Osaka is where the white fox is thought to have lived.

The Centipede Sent for a Doctor (Sumi ink on linen, 30 x 15.5 cm., 2007) is a Miyagi prefecture tale about some insects at a party. When one became ill, they sent the centipede to bring the doctor, thinking that his many legs would speed him there. However, when they checked on his progress, they found him at the entrance still putting straw sandals on his hundred feet.


The Centipede Sent for a Doctor, 2007. Sumi ink on linen, 30 x 15.5 cm.

Scholar Reiko Tomii notes, in a 2012 catalog essay for Taira’s solo show at Tokyo Gallery, that the artist’s three-dimensional works continue the Japanese narrative scroll tradition of combining pictures and texts; she also “materializes a rare state of unification between the signified and the signifier…”

I saw Robert Hickman’s ( DMMDI (Dudek Made Me Do It) at the all-glass Humanities Gallery at Long Island University. It will travel to St Peter’s Church (54th & Lexington – Midtown) in October, and will expand to six panels for a Smack Mellon exhibition in spring 2014.

Two things fascinated me: first, this project involved labor but little to no material expense. The mirror was donated, and leftover mirror bits were recycled to a colleague and his students. Second, this is an original take on the Penrose, a pattern found in Islamic tile and Asian carpets.

Using ten sheets of 4’ x 8’ mirror, Hickman created an 8’ x 16’ rectangle composed of 6000 triangles in about 50 sizes in pyramids that are hexagons, pentagons, quadrangles, and triangles. The inter-relations between the 3, 4, and 5-sided pyramids is that all are centered around the 6-sided one. Even though the art has sharp edges – the artist cut himself while he was demonstrating his process – Hickman told me, “It seems chaotic, but perfect rows go across it at 90, 30, and 360 degrees. It’s pentagons going around hexagons – it goes from six to 12 sides, making it seem as though the circles are turning.”

Installation view of

Installation view of DMMDI (Dudek Made Me Do It)

The studio aspect of this work is that the construction process is laid out on a luan wood panel suspended from the ceiling. (The panel is left over from his Laced Canopy MTA commission at Broadway & 72 St., for which Hickman and his employees hand-cut a million pieces of glass to create a moiré effect like crushed jewels covering 1600 square feet.) Step 1: A glass cutter and templates are used to cut the pieces. Step 2: Wood templates for different types of pyramids. Mirrors are taped into place on top of each template. Step 3: Place pyramid top upside down into large hollow cylinder. Step 4: Paint wooden dowels black, dab the ends with ink, and glue dowels into the bottom corners of pyramids (a, b, c, d). Step 5: Take off the tape with a razor blade & clean the pyramids with Sprayway glass cleaner. Step 6: Assemble the pyramids into hexagons surrounded by pentagons and quadrangles. Special templates are needed to make the flat sides of the rectangle. The finished work is notable for its reflections and shadows on the white ceiling and columns in the glass gallery space.

Hickman’s other projects range from a December 2012 130-mile unicycle tour crossing 55 bridges for Sculpture Key West in celebration of The Overseas Railway’s 100th anniversary to a collaborative ‘One Big City Project’ in the South Bronx with Czech artist Martin Papcun planned for August 2013. Robert Hickman’s photos were all taken by Etienne Frossard.

By Jan Garden Castro

2 responses

  1. So inspiring when a “review” is truly a heartfelt collaboration — art & seer. This review — not simply finding/linking these 2 featured artists (although that alone would be glorious), but by capturing the mysterious, the sublime, the luminous, this makes us human, grateful, & responsible. Thanks!

  2. Thanks for including the vid, beautiful and very cool! I was wondering if this piece would be better exhibited on a wall (with appropriate lighting). Would the reflections of the viewers obscure the interactive reflections of the piece? Thanks again for sharing this.

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