EQUINE ICONS: THE ART OF REGINA DOI
Look closely, and with some reverence, at the art of Olga Regina Doi. You can enter her works by seeing what they are not. Her sole subject is the horse, the horse removed from the world to an ideal place. Doi’s horses exist free of any human context or presence. They perform none of the functional requirements of horses – they neither race, nor pull, nor carry. There is no grass upon which they might graze, nor trees to suggest an environment anywhere on earth. Rather, they float through a pictorial atmosphere of unearthly glowing color, choreographed in poses and movements eminently equine, and, at the same time eminently beautiful. I see them as true icons, in the original sense of the word: traditionally an icon is a “spirit trap.” Doi’s horses not only express, they actually contain, in a mystical way, the real presence of the horse’s spirits. It is a real presence the close observer can personally feel and react to, as if the horses, in their strange realm, were actively alive. As in the icons of orthodox Greece or Russia, and for the same reason, Doi’s forms are rendered by various degrees of abstraction, an abstraction that describes a higher level of beauty, more divine than physical. However, this abstraction never departs from, but intensely spins out into art, the true nature of the horse, even as it embeds in the work, the spirit of the artist herself.
The spirit of the artist is itself a strong presence in Doi’s paintings, blended in a strange and potent union with the spirits of her horses. It particularly manifests itself in one of the extraordinary things about her images. This is the way they become vehicles for the expression, not only of an exalted equine essence, but also of equally exalted human concepts and feelings, often made clear by the titles. In the “Incredible Light from the Sky” series, of abstract, supremely rhythmic forms rendered in sweeping gold brush work against white, some of the titles are Love, Courtship, Birth, and, oddly, Challenge for the Clouds. Images from other series have the names Truth, Calm, Peace, and Friendship. In a tradition that goes back to the Tang dynasty in China, and which continues to be followed today in the art of China and Japan, the brushwork in paintings was conceived of as channeling directly from the artist’s spirit into paint, a broad range of these kinds of human feelings, whatever the subject matter might be. Each of Doi’s titles are accompanied by their translation into Japanese. The title commonly appears conspicuously in Doi’s work in its Japanese character, within a strong red square suggesting the red signature seal with which Asian artists have always marked their paintings. These red seal-like squares function as the keys that unlock Doi’s carefully constructed compositions. Doi’s picture surfaces are reduced to the barest simplicity, like mantras for a meditation. They resemble ancient icons in the fact that they come in many sizes, from small panels that can be hand-held, for a particularly intimate experience, to white and gold banners capable of decorating a great hall. An overall unifying color, sometimes with glowing gold paint, provides the atmosphere for the world in which her horses dwell. With moving, living lines, lines that are beautiful in their own right, Doi expresses aesthetically the horse’s form and motion. These lines rise and fall and interact rhythmically, generating harmonies like passages in a musical composition. At the same time they express the true way horses move, motions she intimately knows.
Regina Doi’s art reminds us of many things about the artist herself: about her skilled horsemanship and her life-long involvement with horses; about her extensive training as a musician; and about her Japanese background, where the art of painting is an extension of the art of calligraphy. While her style is utterly original, like nothing anyone has ever seen before in art, it is also universal in the way it transcends any time or place. If it resembles any art of the past, it would be its coincidental relationship to the earliest images of horses in the history of art, the cave paintings at Lascaux in France. From the latest scholarship we learn that the animals at Lascaux have nothing to do with ordinary magic. Instead, like Doi’s horses, they expressed great cosmic forces, acting through the universe.
Too often in art, artists are attracted to the subject of the horse, not so much because they are devoted to, or inspired by horses. Their inspiration comes from the fact that the horse is a popular subject in the art market. In Doi’s case, her artistic expression of the horse’s form flows from her creative talent as spontaneously and as naturally as a force in nature, a strong current that pulls the observer with it to an experience both moving and profound.
James K. Kettlewell, Professor Emeritus of Art History, Skidmore College