AND, OR, NOT
By STPEHEN WOZNIAK October 17, 2023
“Where Orientalism is about turning persons into things that can be possessed and dominated, ornamentalism is about a fantasy of turning things into persons through the conduit of racial meaning in order, paradoxically, to allow the human to escape his or her own humanness.”
― Anne Anlin Cheng, Ornamentalism
After I walk between the redbrick walls of FLXST Contemporary’s A-Side gallery, I stop to face a cadre of free-floating bodies against its sunlit background. They are long, rippling, elegant forms wrought from lathe-made cherry and poplar wood by the deft hand of artist Vivian Chiu. They seem inevitable in some ways, like they’ve been waiting for watchers to amble through and give them the once-over. That’s because they’re likely to look back – even engage – or, perhaps, upend your very perspective on what and who they might be. While a cursory glance may establish them as family to the modern anthropomorphic sculpture of Brâncuși, Asawa’s biomorphic screen forms, or even ancient Hindu temple columns, their mission and effect feel quite different within our dutifully aroused social and political awareness, which has been profoundly reactivated in recent years.
In Chiu’s new solo exhibition, AND, OR, NOT, the artist chooses personal experience as a way to explore pertinent issues on the table, something she’s performed more explicitly in past autoethnographic figurative photo works. Often, the best way to process such an investigation is through the body – the machine of our being – that sews all sensory input together into consciousness and action. Her smooth, abstract, serialized, pod-like works feature sumptuously stacked orbs, discs, and rectilinear units joined at the hip, yet distinctly misaligned, staggered, and – in many cases – inverted. I learned that Chiu studied contemporary furniture design years ago and once made a piece from pixel-like cubed wood that effectively added up to a chair. Now, in the studio, Chiu does something interesting that harks back to 16th-century woodworking conventions: she joins same-species wood blanks in halves or quarters for very traditional turning and later splits them apart. The result shows viewers both the blade-refined and oil-finished exterior, as well as the raw, tender, inner core of the sculptural components that ultimately become the work.
With titles like Almond Eyes, Pigtails, and Lantern, Chiu’s artwork addresses critical concerns about Asian identity focused on race, gender, and cultural performance. As her lean, ostensibly feminized bodies stand at attention in the gallery space, we soon recognize the repeated, fetishized, corresponding forms that commonly reduce the complexity and value of Asian women as mere usable fragile body parts to an unseen or disregarded interior whole. Her art also asks formal questions about the novel configurations that emerge from its sculptural segments. Are they parts to the new whole of a group or series? How are they fractured, shifted, and different in form than how we might imagine their construction in process? What are they and how do we accept their transformations as both sheer art objects and story devices?
An interesting and unassuming piece featured in the show is Fan #1. Made from same-sized, almost-mitotic, connected spheres of cherry wood, the units are simply quadrisected, slid, joined, and unfinished. It stands on a table, its base and top cut off in mid-stride, perhaps alluding to the end of unchecked growth or the limit of its form and the content of its expression. Two other works that I particularly love are Pagoda and Pagoda 2. Both split-turned and reassembled, like Chiu’s other works, this time one of the sculptures lies prone – unlike its namesake building – greatly loosening its show of strength, identity, and purpose. It’s as if Chiu is toppling state rule, raising and razing the roof of power dynamics that dominate cultural narratives, which even the most enlightened carry in them and execute inadvertently every day.
While the artist’s body of current work alludes to issues of personal and collective identity “shape-shifting” and “asymmetrical assimilation,” as Chiu describes, it also presents discrete objects of desire worthy of examination, creating multiple sites – of tension and release, misunderstanding and learning – among the expected, the unexpected and the void of forms that can constitute the utterly unknown. The beauty of these remarkable, deceptively minimal objects is that viewer acceptance of their transitional state is half the peace, instead of half the battle. If we can give a moment to simply be with them, very often we can see them for what they are, even as they change both our small and great expectations.
Vivian Chiu’s solo exhibition AND, OR, NOT is on view through October 30th at FLXST Contemporary in Chicago. WM
Stephen Wozniak is a visual artist, writer, and actor based in Los Angeles. His work has been exhibited in the Bradbury Art Museum, Cameron Art Museum, Leo Castelli Gallery, and Lincoln Center. He has performed principal roles on Star Trek: Enterprise, NCIS: Los Angeles, and the double Emmy Award-nominated Time Machine: Beyond the Da Vinci Code. He co-hosted the performing arts series Center Stage on KXLU radio in Los Angeles and guest hosts Art World: The Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art podcast in New York City. He earned a B.F.A. from Maryland Institute College of Art and attended Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. To learn more, go to: www.stephenwozniakart.com and www.stephenwozniak.com. Follow Stephen on Instagram at @stephenwozniakart and @thestephenwozniak.view all articles from this author