Ben Brown Fine Arts, London
17 October – 29 November 2013
by HARRIET THORPE
He was a pivotal founding member of the Stars group in China in the 1970s, along with artists such as Ai Weiwei, Huang Rui and Ma Desheng. Wang first displayed his work at the now famous guerrilla-style Chinese revolutionary art exhibition in 1979, when artists from the Stars group covered the fences outside the national art gallery in Beijing with their paintings and sculptures. Much has changed since those revolutionary days, and what we see at Ben Brown Fine Arts is an evolution of Wang’s craft. His subject matter has developed, but he remains committed to his original material, wood. This exhibition presents a collection of work that is not only important to Chinese art history, but also belongs to a wider and global movement of abstract and figurative sculpture.
The exhibition spans almost 25 years of Wang’s sculptural work: the earliest pieces are La Nuit and Le Matin, both from 1989, and the latest, a sculpture from this year, Renaissance. La Nuit shows a recognisably female form; thick hair reaches down her back and there is a feminine exaggeration of her shapely behind. Le Matin is the male counterpart; his back is broad and his buttocks are muscular. With their simplicity of form and sensuality, these two characters remind me of Constantin Brâncuşi’s sculpture The Kiss (1916). This year’s Renaissance is more abstract: a bold and irregular head, breasts and the abstract curve of an arm across the body are interpreted from the form. Although the sculpture is of bronze, Wang does not deviate from the dark brown, polished look of the wood and, in fact, the two materials are almost indistinguishable. Looking back over 25 years of work, subtle transformations of material and shape are noticeable, but the sculptures are all of the same family.
It is interesting to compare these pieces to one of his earlier and most iconic pieces, Idol (1979). Idol was famous for its bold depiction of a chubby-cheeked face with the star of communism on his forehead, closely representing that of Mao Zedong. His depiction in wood toyed with Mao’s status as an “idol”, aligning him with statuettes of the worshipped deities of religions across the world. This sculpture was cleverly crafted through its bold political connotations as well as its wooden form.
The work in this current exhibition no longer represents a criticism of a political individual, but an appraisal of the collective body of humanity, where humanity is wholesome and sensual. Wang’s sculptures are medium-sized, dense blocks of wood, displayed at human height on white podiums. Each piece is approachable and the viewer takes a calming journey, weaving through the sculptures, where there is no chronology, just a natural undulation of heights and colours. The sculptures exist as a group, responding to each other as similar shapes are echoed across the room, like a natural growth of forms. Surfaces are soft, smooth like skin, and beckon to be touched. I imagine the artist nurturing, buffing and polishing these pieces with care. The only colours in the room are the white of the walls and the resonant, rich brown of the polished wood. Figurative elements of Wang’s sculptures include curled bodies, wrapped arms and furrowed heads: in Rêve (2002), a figure is folded into a protective ball; in Couple (2004), two forms are entwined, their limbs overlapping as they envelop each other. These sculptures are icons of humanity that reveal our desire for warmth and touch.
Sculpted from selected pieces of wood, each unit is self-sufficient and self-contained. This reminds me of Antony Gormley’s singular approach to the human form and, through the collective grouping of forms, Wang’s sculptures are simultaneously a reference to humanity. Similar colours can be found in Gormley’s rusty iron surfaces and Wang’s polished wood and bronze. Yet, despite similarities, their sculptures serve very different purposes on this Earth. Gormley’s are built to defy mortal existence, destined to orbit space in the future, while Wang’s representations exist among us in this age. Once breathing and living just like us, the wood holds a certain warmth, weathering in response to time, experience and human touch.
Working with wood since the beginning of his artistic career, Wang has developed a close relationship with it. He uses various types: yew, acacia, green oak, plane, maple, poplar, honeylocust and ash. His fingerprints seem to be ingrained in the surface, like the natural rings of the trunk, from years of working, experimenting and treating the material. He collects pieces of wood and watches them develop with time. He waits for, and expects, certain changes and unique features – such as knots and imperfections – to occur naturally. He also coaxes out shapes and allows cracks to form, from working on the wood moist. In Yin et Yang (2006), the natural ends of the branch protrude from the sculpture, where the end is severed and rough in contrast to the smooth body.
I am enthralled by Fée de Lune (2012), which appears as a curled cross-section of a tree trunk, displaying with pride the rings of its many years of existence. Through these rings I see a vast oak tree, surviving seasons and sheltering nature. This sculpture, however, is made of bronze, the surface treated to resemble the tone and sheen of its wooden counterparts. Its resemblance to wood has tricked me, and life captured becomes life preserved.