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Anne Chu / MATRIX 184

April 16, 2000 - June 18, 2000

Anne Chu: Court Lady, 1999, oil and casein on wood, 28 inches high. Collection University of California, Berkeley Art Museum; purchase made possible by a bequest from Thérèse Bonney.

Download the exhibition brochure (PDF) .

"I wanted to make painted sculpture, because there have not been modern examples of it that really deal with the issues of both painting and sculpture. My interest is in the fusion of painting and sculpture so that the painting in the sculpture is intrinsic to the form making, not decorating it. This is a tradition that has been seen in many ancient cultures, but has not been thoroughly explored in our era."
—Anne Chu1

Using a variety of mediums including wood, bronze, urethane, and ceramic, Anne Chu explores issues in sculpture and painting. Her process is to infuse painting into materials that are themselves used in unexpected ways. By shifting conventional expectations of the appearance of sculpture, the artist allows a reconsideration of the familiar. She is currently using traditional Chinese artifacts systematically as a base from which to work. She has remade T'ang dynasty ceramic funerary figures, sculpted Asian and Western–inspired landscapes, and painted luminous watercolors characterized by a subtle tension between abstraction and figuration. Chu traveled to China in 1995. Her experience helped inspire her choice of models for the Chinese–based pieces.

Chu's focus on painted sculpture began with a series of bears that stood over seven feet tall on their hind legs. Loosely based on the third–century–B.C. life–size terracotta warriors discovered in Xi'an, Chu's bears are cast paper statues; each is posed in an authoritative, balanced stance, palms up in a t'ai chi posture. Although the bodies of the bears are uniform, each face is astonishingly expressive. The chest plate shields derived from found t–shirt designs and common cultural icons such as a Masonic eye, or more personal symbols as in a Chinese character for the artist's own name, express each bear's individuality. For Chu, bears represent a wide range of symbolism and sentiment, and because of this oversaturation, function as blank slates. "Unlike other animals, she said, bears do not stand for a specific type of psychology.'" Her next effort included a group of sculptures in which human heads were paired with bear heads. Then she began what for me signals her mature style: the appropriation of T'ang dynasty ceramic funerary figures.

The T'ang dynasty (618–907) was a period of economic and territorial expansion. The capital of Chang'an (modern Xi'an) was a bustling metropolis where merchants and traders of diverse ethnic origins brought exotic gifts, esoteric religions, and exquisite luxuries from faraway places for a sophisticated, cosmopolitan clientele. This was an exciting period in Chinese history with a complex character. The artistic imagination of this time is evident in Buddhist and Daoist monuments, tomb sculptures, vibrant glazed ceramics, and ornamental accessories in metalwork and jade. Under the imperial patronage of T'ang emperors,peoples of wide–ranging religious, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds lived side by side in China's cities. For Chu, the T'ang funerary ceramics unsentimentally represent the complexity of the civilization.

I first saw Chu's T'ang figures in early 1998 in an exhibition at the AC Project Room in New York City. The experience of encountering contemporary art that is so refreshingly new and surprising took my breath away. In Chu's sculpture, I also found astounding, mesmerizing beauty. Chu's T'ang figures are inspired by historical icons but are completely unique. Her figures echo the expressions, gestures, and garments of their sources. Yet, they are made out of wood instead of porcelain. Depending on their size, they are carved with different power tools–ranging from chain saws down to minute dental tools. They are painted abstractly rather than realistically. The broad planes of arbitrary color Chu uses to paint the figures give them an irregular, heightened beauty. Finally, her sculptures are larger than the originals, standing twenty–eight inches high instead of ten or twelve inches.

Chu continues many of the practices of ancient Chinese artisans. She chooses figures from different regions. Her wooden figures are always based on photographs of actual ceramic figures. Chu prefers working from photographs of sculpture rather than directly from the objects because the "lines are already flat and spatial at the same time."2 Her appropriation of figures is accurate though slightly off—while she maintains the same stance, she takes liberties by changing the hands. In this way, Chu's technique mirrors the original. The bodies of all of the T'ang figures were made in molds, but artisans attached the heads and hands at various angles to add the essential spark of life. In life, fingerprints are used to identify people because no two hands are the same. Historically, individual craftspeople fashioned the same T'ang figures repeatedly in various sizes. Originally created as ubiquitous, secular objects, the individuality of the actual antique figures belies the ordinariness that one would expect to result from the hundreds or thousand of them that exist.

In Chu's Ballplayer on Horse (1998), an elaborately carved and painted male figure sits atop a bronze horse. Bronze horses, often with riders, were produced in groups, forming a procession to accompany a nobleman in burial. Chu's use of a figure mounted on a horse results from a general interest in these types of burial figures. Recognizing that different materials create a distinct sculptural presence, here Chu decided to couple bronze with wood. In Chu's sculpture, the bronze horse shares a patchy, expressive painting style with the figure. Head cocked to one side, one hand on his chest and the other raised in an extended gesture, the ballplayer is poised to throw. Horses were not just status symbols in ancient China but also a necessity for political survival.

Chu also creates sensuous, luminous watercolors in which the subjects, figures, or landscapes are only partially rendered. If Chu's Small Landscape (1999) were displayed without the title and removed from the context of her other works, one would take the drawing as purely abstract. Loosely painted and true to the medium of watercolor, bright colors pool at the bottom of animated, elongated shapes. Knowing Chu's idiosyncratic color schemes, the juxtaposition of yellow with lavender, red with olive green, and rose with chocolate brown may reference a waterfall flowing through a rough mountain landscape, with the sun burning through a foggy morning.

In her shift from the full figure to the portrait bust in a recent series, Chu again focuses on what is unique to the individual: the face. And again, she imposes an individuality on the T'ang figures. The people in these new portrait busts are copies of Chu's burial figures (which are of course copies of T'ang figures). Similar to the history of the repetitive process among Chinese artisans, Chu creates the same figures repeatedly. While Chu's images resemble known icons, they stand somehow separate, tentative, and thus more powerful for their subtle distortions or personalizations. Chu has created sculpture in a variety of different sizes. Her interest in scale, however, usually relates to human scale-although slightly off. She uses scale as a sensory trigger to entice the viewer to consider the work several times over. In Guardian and House (1999), a multi–storied Han–style tower cast from bright orange urethane is surveyed by a cast-iron guardian figure that is suspended from the ceiling. Here, in opposition to realistic proportions, Chu makes the figure and the tower approximately the same size. The grimace of the guardian figure's face is perhaps intended to ward off intruders or evil spirits. As another means of establishing a dynamic and disconcerting relationship between the two objects, the gnarled surface of the bronze body contrasts with the smooth, elegant surface of the tower.

Chu has recently started making landscapes that signal another change in scale, from a hand–held object to a large–scale environment that also comprises a distant perspective. Seven Views of Landscape (1999) sits on the gallery floor allowing the viewer two uniquely combined perspectives: a bird's–eye view and a tactile, topographical one. Chu's efforts at sculpting the form are apparent through hatched gashes. Her actions mirror the profound change nature can have on the wide–open plains, creating new hills, valleys, and vistas. Here again, the use of color is diverse and expressive. While Chu mostly employs representational tones such as yellows, browns, and greens, she also uses shocking orange, royal blue, and pastel pink. Inspired by Chinese scroll painting and scholar's rocks, as well as by the landscape of the western United States, this combination continues her interest in the integration of painting and sculpture as well as the fusion of East and West in her work.

Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson
Phyllis Wattis MATRIX Curator

1 This and all subsequent quotes are from Anne Chu, conversation with author, New York, November 23, 1999.

2 Barry Schwabsky, "Anne Chu," On Paper, September/October 1997, vol. 2, no. 1, pp. 20-21.

The MATRIX Program at the UC Berkeley Art Museum is made possible by a generous endowment gift of Phyllis Wattis.

Additional donors to the MATRIX program include the UAM MATRIX Council Endowment, Ann Hatch, and the California Arts Council.

The museum also wishes to thank Celeste and Anthony Meier for their support of Anne Chu / MATRIX 184 Untitled.