Artists often circle back to the same childhood traumas for material, but Chiharu Shiota’s devotion to one particular memory borders on monomania. In Japan, when she was a girl, Shiota witnessed the burning of a neighbors’ home, and remembers, she says, the sound of their piano going up in flames. Several years ago, as if translating an imprinted image of the fire’s smoke into a safer physical form, Shiota started filling rooms with great lengths of black wool thread, stringing it dense and taut from ceilings, floors, and walls, often cocooning objects (including burnt pianos) within the angular web.
At Goff + Rosenthal (the artist’s first solo show in New York), Shiota has assembled a number of recently scorched chairs under a dense black plume of that thread—approximately 14 miles of it. The lines, intersecting at a thousand different angles, form a thick mass that occludes the space so much it’s nearly impossible to see the back wall. The chairs, still smelling of fire, virtually disappear. Even though it’s only a small sample of what Shiota, who lives in Berlin, has constructed elsewhere, the sight is thrilling—a mix of death, oppression, and catastrophe, contained and neatly designed.
Though often compared to Eva Hesse, Shiota works more like Gertrude Goldschmidt, the Venezuelan artist known as Gego, who used wire in a similar fashion. The comparison is especially apt for Shiota’s canvases. In these, like Gego, Shiota has limited her chosen material (the thread) to two dimensions, “sketching” exquisite tangles that coalesce into black-on-white organic forms—a kind of geometric embroidery. The artist has also strung thread inside open cubes the size of packing boxes to enclose various items (lightbulbs, baby shoes), but these works appear more like maquettes for ideas that belong in large spaces. Someone in the city (MOMA?) should give this woman’s dark obsession all the space it needs.