Stuck Marble

It’s summer in Queens, New York. Standing on a table in Anne Chu’s studio is Bust: Young Roman Boy, one of the smaller, more discrete works for her upcoming show in Krefeld, the highlight of which will be an installation of eleven ceramic putti. These are flying around the space, held in place on poles, while Chu continues to build them up, along with the rest of her show. Also in the works is a suite of watercolor drawings that feel like frescos – the paper is so thick – as well as two full-length clay sculptures of children, a boy and a girl, destined for marble pedestals. Not here is a figure of a headless man with a crooked cock being cast in nickel silver bronze at the foundry Chu works with in Switzerland. Another metal job is just back from a fabricator in Belgrade and is spread out on a table in pieces. What started off in the studio as a lacy fabric, roughly hand-stitched over wire armatures, has returned galvanized into aluminum: the putti’s wings, waiting to be attached or rejected.

Before delving into the work at hand, a quick snapshot of Chu’s studio. Located on the third floor of an industrial building that overlooks the entrance to the Midtown Tunnel, the space is graced with a wall of windows that look out to Manhattan. There’s a large kiln, work tables, a drawing table, a steel-case desk surmounted by a giant computer screen and lots of paperwork, a phalanx of fully loaded bookshelves, a sewing machine, and many arrays of tools and materials, including bins of beautiful fabric. The studio shares a kitchenette with Chu’s neighbor, the painter Paul Bloodgood, whose children Able and Castle are the models for the two figures.

Chu’s space is set up for studio art, light industry, and craft. It’s a fairly standard admixture of activities for sculptors who, like Chu, approach materials and processes like “objects” of appropriation: there to be lifted and used to make new objects whose potential for meaning will be significantly imbued with and expanded by the original context and references they have been made to physically embody. Since Chu emerged as an artist in the mid-1990s, her sculptural appropriations have been methodically enacted through a range of specific objects (ancient Chinese funerary figures, Tang Dynasty sculptures and landscapes, medieval European tomb sculpture and pageantry, specific works of art by Velázquez and Holbein, Indian miniatures and temple art, illustrated histories by Max von Boehn, King Solomon’s Song of Songs), as well as a full range of materials, crafts, and techniques (chainsawed and hand-carved blocks of wood, ceramic, all kinds of cast metals and resins, machine embroidery on stuffed fabric, digital photography, plaster fresco, printmaking, laser cutting, drawing, painting, sewing). “Whatever it takes to get the job done” might be her studio’s motto. The assorted particulars may be unique, but in its imaginative and physical intelligence, Chu’s work calls to mind that of such peers as Josiah McElheny, Thomas Schütte, and Kiki Smith. As sculptors, all are intensely committed to figuring craft – which they appear to define as an endless spectrum of possible technologies and processes – into works of art that connect past histories, cultures, concepts, with present objects.

What sets Chu’s studio apart from those of the above are the animals: small bears, a goat, largish birds. These are Chu’s familiars: temporarily orphaned, they come from past bodies of work and may find themselves adopted into future projects. Meanwhile, they perch and mill about. The old horse is giving one of the new putti a ride.

Let’s go back to that bust on the table, the one of a Roman boy that looks both newly made and freshly excavated – or restored. Soft curls cap the babyishly large head, delicate neck, and breast of a tender youth, whose blank gaze looks onto an ancient past, when sculptures such as this were painted in detail. This sculpture is also colored: to look like a carved piece of rock. Bust: Young Roman Boy employs and embodies a technique for faking marble known as stuc marbre. Utilizing plaster and pigment traditionally bound together with a glue cooked from animal bone, it’s a technique typically used in architecture. Chu specifically associates it with interiors of provincial churches she has visited over the years, killing time while working with her metal foundry in St. Gallen. When she decided to incorporate stuc marbre into her own art, she quickly found that it wasn’t going to be easy to adapt a technique used for decorating a wall into the making of a bust.

That this would prove a problematic process was evident immediately in her online search: Google translates “stuc marbre” into “stuck marble.” Using other sources, she was able to cobble together enough information to embark on a process that sounds absurdly backward-thinking and laborious, but that Chu considers basic studio practice. On the table, next to the bust, are the first head she built up from layers of black wax and the plaster mold she made from it. (Weirdly lined in silicone, the mold looks as if a rubber mask were embedded in a dried clod of white mud.) Here also are the brushes Chu used to swab and daub the inside of the mold with pigment before filling it with plaster. (“I couldn’t see inside so I had no idea how the color was going on, let alone how it would get pulled onto the surface as it dried.”) And there is the pan of bone glue that got abandoned in the process. (“Just too disgusting.”) Some tools that would not have traditionally been part of the stuc marbre-er’s trade are the electric buggers, which Chu used to polish up her fake marble to a fine sheen.

Surveying all this stuff and mess, one wonders, why didn’t Chu just carve a head out of a chunk of plaster and paint it? The answer, of course, lies in the sculpture. Geo-illogical: what rock blooms terra-cotta red through bursts of yellow sandstone that have been clouded over by cool gray stone? This painterly aggregate looks no more like a piece of marble than did the walls of those Swiss village churches. But that’s the point. More artificial than natural, Chu’s work represents representation over time, time contained and objectified on every level of her art’s imagery, making, and reception. Bust: Young Roman Boy visually references classical Western art, while physically representing some vernacular decorative tradition that – even if you can’t exactly place it – clearly took time and effort to execute. The pressure of holding all these modes of time together finds its expression in the face of the boy, who purses his mouth shut, opens his eyes wide, bulges out his cheeks, and obstinately endures the alarming process of turning to stone.

That’s the thing about Chu’s agglomerations of time: instead of seamlessly synthesizing past and present, they appear to burst, erupt, and jam into now. Of the pair of ceramic sculptures of children, the girl seems to have fared a much easier passage than the boy, whose legs appear to have shattered on arrival. Put back together with metal rods, the boy also sports small holes in his head. Step to the side of the two figures, and it’s a different picture: the little girl torques so radically to the right, she’s practically pitched off her pedestal. Plus there is a gaping hole in her back. Chu explains that some of these deformations happened in the firing process; these are large masses of clay for a kiln. The boy was so warped, she needed to cut apart and reconstruct him on that metal armature to literally get him back up on his feet. The holes, it turns out, were all made by Chu; she cut too deep while carving and then just let those gouges be.

Chu seems to welcome damage. And from the face of things, both children look fine: attentive to the job of keeping still and standing upright, they are wholly present as sculpture. The little girl seems downright pleased with herself, like a slapstick comedian bent ridiculously backward as she managed to stand up casually against gale-force winds. Likewise, Chu routinely pushes her equipment, materials, craft, and ever-newfound techniques beyond the limits of their intended purpose to the point of snapping, breaking, ripping, exploding. Her studio is as much a place of destruction as it is of creation, where brute repairs and tender conservation are just part of the process. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised, then, at the roughness with which Chu handles her work. She demonstrates how the porcelain putti fit together, like dolls or marionettes, by twisting off the heads of one and jamming it back into the empty socket. The ceramic grates as she attempts to get the head to catch hold of the invisible metal armature that is inside each putto. Frustrated, she leaves the head on the floor. Later it occurs that such an impasse, like all of the deliberations and struggle that Chu packs into her art, is just another way of accruing time.

Swimming in Air

We speak of the weight of time, but now that her work has been installed in Krefeld, whatever forces moored it to the studio have been untethered, and Chu’s sculptures are positively buoyant. The putti defy gravity, as if the galleries were underwater or high in the air – to zones that the artist has explored aloft and in depth. A certified scuba diver for more than a decade, Chu hired a pilot last winter, during an artist’s residency in the Big Sky Country of Wyoming, to fly her up to photograph the clouds. She considers it lucky the weather was so bad (the pilot offered to postpone the trip): the thunderheads were that magnificent.

Though the heavens may be the putti’s mythical natural habitat, there is something more aqueous than airy to Chu’s installation. Glazed in drips and veils of color, the sculptures look as if they might have swum or sunk through the watercolor drawings that flow throughout the galleries. In them, awkwardly sketched classical motifs emerge like rubble – along with the occasional monkey – from dreamy washes of color. There is rubble to contend with in the sculpture, too: one of the putti has a foot stuck to its face. Another kiln accident Chu decided to accept, it fragmentarily conjures an entire shipwreck full of antique sculptures lying undisturbed beneath the ocean and becoming coral, until the archaeologist’s dredge transforms them into museum display. Then there is the violence of the spears, or poles, that are holding the putti in place, sometimes invisibly, other times grotesquely or erotically. When you don’t notice the poles, it’s as if the whole installation were a drawing of figures floating in space. But then when you do, the raw physicality of Chu’s sculpture abruptly takes hold.

Chu did go to Pompeii to see the famous erotic frescoes there. Another funnel of time, travel plays an important role in the collecting of information and experience that her work gives form and shape to. In an ever-ongoing process of research, she travels frequently, ambitiously, out of the blue, and all over the world. The cast male figure is based on a sculpture she photographed in the Hermitage last winter, when a cheap chance to go to Russia materialized. Likewise, she was recently on a boat deep in the Amazon. Over the years, Chu has traveled the globe, especially in Asia, except for Africa, which awaits. What did she bring back from Pompeii? The physical energy of her installation could be traces to those erotic chambers, but otherwise there is no explicit reference – save for an incidental image she took from one of the many trompe l’oeil paintings ornamenting and animating one of the many walls of the many rooms at Pompeii, where Chu noticed a fallen putto dropped to the ground of pictorial space as if it were actually lying on the floor of that ancient room.

Listen to the smack of that small flesh as it echoes – beautifully and uncomfortably – throughout these pristine white gallery chambers. Chu created this installation specifically for Haus Lange, one of two adjoining houses designed by Mies van der Rohe that are now part of the Kunstmuseen Krefold. A classic work of modern architecture, the last thing these rooms would like to admit is wall decoration, no matter how classical the reference, and especially as it involved babies flashing about; Chu’s putti smack of the “crime” of ornament – along with the related misdemeanors femininity and charm – that Adolf Loos theorized about and Mies designed against. And yet the relationship Chu generates between her installation and Mies’s design is more playfully intelligent than critically academic. Her play goes straight to the bones of his exquisite architecture. Mies’s great achievement with the Barcelona Pavilion (1929) was to design architecture that was completely structural in plan; the Lange and Esters Houses (1928-30) are almost, but not quite, there. They harbor walls that are not load bearing but are purely aesthetic, along with the requisite steel framework. Drawing out these hidden structures into metal lines and putting putti on them may not have been Chu’s intention when she staked out her installation, but it’s certainly one way of extruding a connection from her work into the rooms it wholly inhabits.

Chu also explicitly references another artist who worked in and out of time: the writer Marguerite Yourcenar. It’s from Yourcenar’s greatest novel, Memoirs of Hadrian (1951) – in which she applied the full force of her classical scholarship and modern intellect to projecting readers into antiquity – that Chu draws the title of her exhibition. Animula vagula blandula is the first line of a poem by the Roman emperor, used as an epigraph for his mausoleum and cited by Yourcenar: “Little soul, gentle and drifting, guest and companion of my body, now you will dwell below in pallid places, stark and bare; there you will abandon your play of yore.” Readers of the novel will associate the “little soul” with Hadrian’s lover, the Greek boy Antinous (who commits suicide rather than grow old and out of favor), or with the emperor himself (once a boy whose portrait was no doubt carved as a bust). For viewers of this exhibition, it’s the sculptural putti and children that will absorb the poem’s associations: amiable, roving, unbending, and bare, they fill this empty house, voided of its former distractions, with forces, fragments, and figures of time.

In so doing, Chu’s art performs a useful function. Because her sculptures pack such a random and precise range of references, they don’t permit us to entertain the notion that the past is settled, the present is known, and it’s time to move on. Because her art is so aggressively decorative and physical at once, its presence arrests attention and disrupts time. Because it comes to us as if thrown over the transom or pushed through the wall of time, Chu’s work imagines a future in which our capacity for being in the present has been radically expanded by all there is to absorb. And who can envision what – in time – will suddenly come of that? We live in an era of “retromania,” observes the music critic Simon Reynolds, who coined the term, which rings with impatience, within a contemporary culture jammed on replay. In light of the historicism of Chu’s work, one wonders whether perhaps this culture has too narrow a bandwidth. Yes, it’s hard to imagine what great things will come of parsing and paraphrasing the hits (in music and in art) of the past few decades from a tiny sliver of the world. On the other hand, given the exponential expansion of our cultural field as it now exists digitally and globally, one might ask, what’s the big hurry?