Anne Chu, Installation view, 303 Gallery, New York, 2003. All images courtesy of the artist and 303 Gallery.
Why do we keep looking for vitality in objects? Inert matter is over there, we’re here; we’re alive, it’s not. But collisions do happen and sparks fly. Think of Pygmalion, who chiseled a lover for himself out of a block of marble to fulfill a latent fantasy in the bottomless history of figurative sculpture. Anne Chu is different: she hacks blocks of wood into figures that await animation by an imaginary puppeteer. No such person will arrive. Ropes connect the puppets’s arms and heads to an out-of-reach puppeteer’s frame on the ceiling, while they remain frozen, like all artworks, in postures eternally soliciting attention. Their performance ended in Chu’s studio, when she finished the work of sewing, sawing and assembling. Now they emphatically tell the story of their own making. Wire frames are ingeniously clothed to become torsos. Heads and hands are chopped from wood with a rough vigor that could be called violent if the characters’s storybookish dispositions weren’t so benign. Bestial is a ghoulish she-devil who threatens only comically, with her cartoonish bear paws and Humpty-Dumpty figure. Tracollo, in dapper pajamas, has his face completely wrapped in bandages, as though his own carving had wounded him. Charming Girl sits holding her own little puppet guy on a stick, but her puppeting hand is a fused blob with zero finger control.
Anne Chu, Bestial, 2003, wood, fabric, and wire, 69 × 63½ × 70 inches.
Anne Chu, Tracollo, 2003, wood, fabric, and wire, 78½ × 24 × 13 inches.
Chu’s characters have limited agency. Their gaze is often compromised by eyes sometimes closed, sometimes only partially articulated and occasionally simply left as a pair of gouged holes. Their hands have no grasp. The puppets seem constrained by forces larger than themselves. Even their incompleteness emphasizes their confinement to a world of material objects: wires spring out, seams show, and wood splinters or splits. On the one hand, Chu’s sculptures argue for a secret life as a materials-oriented abstraction, the formalism disguised as vernacular figuration. The ad hoc use of wood, wire, and cloth is, in this argument, only pretending to serve the theatrical content. On the other hand, the sculptures are expressive self portraits that describe the artist as an ambivalent self-presenter, an incomplete dressed up husk, endlessly deferring performances and social entanglements.
But Chu’s big toys are suavely cosmopolitan with their ranging allusions and shifting identifications, their syncopated construction energies of cutting and stitching, their mix of high artifice and practicality. The work recruits historic precursors from China and Europe with a fluid anthropological imagination. We are invited to eavesdrop on lively conversations between Chu and the art of museums; their talk is intimate, affable, mischievous, and filled with affectionate expansiveness. Chu’s robust works neither depict other depictions nor are they pure products of the imagination. They are hybrid singularities that ardently perform both possibilities.
David Humphrey is a painter and art writer living in New York.