By Sam Hall Kaplan
The visual arts these days can be almost anything beyond the recognized appearances as paintings and sculpture. Embraced now is printmaking, ceramics, drawing, design, crafts, photography, video, filmmaking, and, yes, my past prime interest of architecture.
Exploring and embracing as art even further the everyday world and more, with engaging and select stunning results, is an exhibit that opened recently at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, entitled “The Allure of Matter: Material Art from China.” It runs until Jan. 5, 2020.
Be prepared to be provoked, if not encouraged to look at everyday elements as grist for an artist, and for this reason alone the exhibition is noteworthy.
And so we have both usual and generic materials as plastic, furniture, cigarettes water, and gunpowder, too, used by Chinese contemporary artists as their preferred mediums to express themselves and comment on present day society. As noted in the introduction to the exhibit, “these signature materials transcend standard art forms to function as superagents that hold particular significance and strongly convey meaning.”
But, really, to understand and explain it, you really have to experience it, even if it means having to endure the traffic of the frustrating freeways and the dread PCH.
Of the 21 artists Chinese artists represented most well known and influential is Ai Weiwei, who recently had a captivating exhibition at the nearby Marciano Art Foundation last year.
The prime installation there was a response to the refugee crisis with boats, humans and zodiac figures crafted out of traditional kite-making materials: bamboo, sisal and silk. But what really remains with me is the image of a huge carpet of millions of sunflower seeds made of tiny porcelain sculptures that celebrate the 1,600 artisans it took two years to make, a statement of labor and love.
At LACMA, Weiwei is represented by two antique tables he had transformed into a balanced sculpture that of course turns what had been two pieces of furniture into a crafted art piece. This, of course, negated their original functions, and is a telling statement I feel about society’s value for traditional woodworking and contemporary art.
Actually more provocative is an untitled piece by Gu Dexin, consisting of an entire room decorated with abstracted composition of brightly colored and plastic scraps taken from a factory where he had worked for years no doubt at a dreary job. At home over the years he meticulously melted the scraps into a variety of striking art forms celebrating space and place. Amazing.
Then there was a particularly striking art piece by Xu Bing, consisting of a large tiger skin carpet made entirely of cigarettes. It was ironically labeled a Tobacco Project, and, more ironically, crafted by him as an artist-in residence at Duke University, which was founded by the tobacco fortunes of the Duke family. Bing of course is a native of China, where widespread smoking is a major health, social and economic concern.
Another fascinating work of art really is rooted in the art of nature, specifically the silkworm. For more than 25 years Liang Shaoji has been using this fascinating insect to spin silk on a host of objects, here on hollow metal chains hung from the gallery’s ceiling. According to the exhibit’s didactics, the artist’s “fascination with silk is rooted in the Chinese psyche,” which link the discovery of silk making with the creation of no less than the Chinese civilization,.
What is clearly apparent in this and most of the other art pieces in the exhibit is that they go beyond just making statements about “materiality,” as the curators comment, to the making of “matter,” as “the primary vehicle of philosophical, political, sociological, emotional and aesthetic expression.” This is art, and provocatively much more.