An artist whose work I really love and admire is Sawai Shohei from Japan, who can be found on Instagram as sawai4839. While capable of creating beautiful, finely rendered, realistic drawings, Sawai also inserts abstract patterns and strange shapes into his portraits. All of these various “textures,” as he once called them, create different effects, but because they all work as pareidolias, we cannot help but identify with them and therefore question our own reality.

Untitled Sawai Drawing 1 by Sawai Shohei

Many of Sawai’s drawings appear to capture passengers using public transportation in Tokyo. They often look bored, wear masks (even before the outbreak of COVID-19), and study their phones. However, in one such drawing, instead of seeing a realistic depiction of a Japanese commuter, we see instead a vaguely human-shaped series of cubes that, having appeared from nowhere, are now flying page-left. Two arms emerge from the cubes to hold a book or a booklet-style smart-phone-case up to the “face” of the cubes. Although surreal, the drawing is not frightening; rather, it is quiet, contemplative, and matter of fact, forcing the reader to ask, Is this a person so caught up in their digital display that they are turning into pixels, or a collection of pixels turning into a human? Maybe it’s a metaphor for our reliance on our phones. Or maybe it’s just a weird drawing, a flight of fancy on the part of Sawai.

Untitled Sawai Drawing 2 by Sawai Shohei

Not all of Sawai’s non-representational drawings are so peaceful. In others, human forms are replaced not by geometric certainty, but instead by more disturbing biometric shapes, like cancerous growths sloughing away from skulls, then piled up into something like hair, and then that hair spilled out over the skull like tentacles or eyestalks, again toward smart phones. The suggestion of body horror in these drawings emphasizes the otherness of the strangers on the train, creating a sense or revulsion and distance, like observing unusual animals in a zoo.

Untitled Sawai Drawing 3 by Sawai Shohei

But even these ugly pareidolias are not always disturbing. In one, a child walks near an adult whose facial folds appear to be smiling. Two more adults walk nearby, creating the impression of a family. Rather than seeming “other,” I found myself identifying with the ugliness.

Untitled Sawai Drawing 4 by Sawai Shohei