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Enlightening Materials

at Artemisia, through November 25

By Fred Camper

I never would have guessed this was a student show--the superb craftmanship of the work, and its sometimes mysterious allusiveness, fooled me at first. In an art scene that increasingly seems strangled by the rich variety of cultural histories surrounding us, these 22 metal sculptures by ten graduate students and their teacher at the Tainan National College of the Arts in Taiwan offer ample reason for hope: their works combine a deep awareness of art history with a thought process informed by the conceptual art of recent decades.

Meiing Hsu, the metalsmithing instructor, told me that while her students' schooling includes intensive craft training--skills not required of most art-school graduates in the U.S.--she pushes them to "master both techniques and concepts." With the exception of some elegantly crafted hairpins by Hsiao-Meng Su, the objects are not functional, though many allude to usable objects. The muted or monochromatic colors reminded me of the thousand-year tradition of Chinese ink painting, in which color was considered superfluous and line was the basis of expression. Some pieces show an assured use of line as rhythm, while others use the repeated forms of mass manufacture, alluding to the industrial age and Taiwan's place in it. None display the self-assertiveness found in the work of many U.S. art students. Hsu says Westerners who see this work find a "quietness" that some characterize as "oriental." And much of the work seeks to reconcile dualisms--handmade and manufactured objects, form and emptiness, time experienced as distinct moments and as a continuous flow.

Legend Lin's Towel, Body Brush, Soap consists of the title objects--all the proper size and shape, but made of metal--mounted on a towel rack, hook, and soap dish attached to the wall. Tin-plated copper wire gives the towel the plushiest depth; thicker coils of wire on the brush twist and turn in a forest of rhythmic vortexes. The artist's statement reads, "No fetish, this but a tiny jolt from objects of daily life," and in fact these works are not imbued with the creepiness found in the reproductions of everyday objects by Jeff Koons or Robert Gober. Instead, they read like an intensified version of the items they reference, commanding attention through their vitality--never has the fuzziness of a towel or the roughness of a brush seemed more vivid.

A similar point could be made about an untitled piece by Ying Yeh. A silver cup and saucer, set of chopsticks, and soup spoon have delicate damasklike patterns cut into them. You probably wouldn't use these elegant objects, and their silver color is off-putting, unlike the warmer tones of ceramic or wood. The cut patterns recall the ornamentation of traditional household items, and the piece stands as a metaphor, in a way, for a time before mass production, when people lived with, and used, objects that were carefully handcrafted.

Mass manufacture is addressed most strongly in the work of two artists, Lih-Ying Kang and Shih-Wei Lien. Kang is one of only two males represented here; Hsu told me that in Taiwan metalsmithing is considered mostly a woman's craft.

Kang's 33 Bottles II consists of bottles made of deep black patinated copper and cut open lengthwise. The bottle halves sit in a row in a long case, all seemingly identical, their large number and empty interiors creating an open-ended mystery. Denying the bottle's function, these cutaway views expose how it works while confounding the traditional distinction, common in sculpture, between interior and exterior.

Lien's It's Not Inside the Body has a long row of hanging metal pieces copied from paper or cardboard patterns used to make clothing. The shapes are based on parts of children's shirts and pants, suggesting without exactly resembling the clothes. Each piece is repeated several times before a new pattern begins, referring to the manufacturing process while retaining an allusiveness that goes beyond such references. The title suggests that clothing is our superficial outside, but as with Kang's bottles there is a sense here of clothing being opened up, its inner structure revealed.

Meiing Hsu's own references to manufacturing are infused with an almost surreal suggestiveness: her copper books seem to be growing hair. The blank pages of Bilbliotheca VI are alive with surface relief; long wires sprout from the book's spine. Many recent works by women artists start with the geometrical forms beloved by minimalists and then take on details that refer to the body or to women's work; while Hsu's piece seems to speak to this trend, I noticed that the curvy wave made by the book's pages is echoed by the wire hair and that the wire--much longer than the book itself--trails off irregularly into space. There seems to be a dialogue between the concepts of openness and closure, of absence and specific content. Viewers of Hsu's piece hover on the brink of a meditative state in which distinctions are elided. The pages are blank but still have detail; the wires trail off irregularly but still have a form that reflects the book's.

The tension between form and emptiness is even stronger in Chia-Yun Tsai's Time. Three wavy blobs of copper are placed in the corner of a room. Two are too high up to be examined in detail, but the third, at eye level, has a wonderfully irregular handmade surface that seems to pulsate. This almost organic form, and its position on the wall, suggests a furry animal or giant bug caught on its way back to its lair. The piece has the feel of a momentary illusion--the walls appear to push against each other, causing these forms to pop out for a moment before vanishing.

Jing-Yun Jeng offers several pieces involving bugs seemingly preserved in a thin layer of metal. Mirror places a silvered praying mantis atop a silvered mirror in a wooden frame. The light silver color of the bug is echoed in a blurry white patch, left unpolished after silvering, just below it. The insect seems to be in the midst of movement, an instant in time. Preserving the bug appears to preserve that instant, while the blur on the mirror beneath it suggests time's elusiveness.

Hsi-Hsia Yang's haunting Chunky Memory includes silver casts of parts of her hands, a fingernail's impression sometimes visible, placed on two sheets of thin beeswax. Between the beeswax layers are photocopies of graphite drawings showing the same parts of her hands, a bit blurry, sometimes under or near the casts--their indistinctness suggests fleeting shadows or mirror images. The references to the human body are the exhibit's most direct, yet their presence is strikingly effaced: the casts are partial, the drawings are shadows obscured by beeswax, and the wax itself adds a wonderful scent that doesn't smell like anyone's hand. Making work that neither offers fixed answers nor asks fixed questions, Hsu and her students have beautifully articulated many of the fundamental contradictions in both life today and existence itself.

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