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The spacious galleries of the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami, recently home to the haunting inhabitants of "Louise Bourgeois: Stitches in Time," have a new set of tenants. And like Bourgeois' fabric-based sculptures, the creatures in "Anne Chu"are simultaneously alien and familiar, fascinating and repellent.
Chu, who was born in New York in 1959 to Chinese émigré parents, freely fuses past and present with her work. There are clear-as-a-bell echoes of Chinese funerary figures, medieval European sculptures, and marionettes, and yet Chu's creations are unmistakably contemporary.
The exhibition, organized by MOCA, features roughly three dozen sculptures and about 20 watercolors. Director Bonnie Clearwater, who curated, has given them great expanses of space -- the entire museum, in fact -- so the works have plenty of breathing room. Two relatively small pieces even have the whole Pavilion Gallery, which is separate from the rest of the museum, to themselves. If it weren't for the seemingly endless chatter of the ever-present security guards (one of whom appears to be conjoined with his cell phone), the exhibition would be enveloped by a silence conducive to contemplation.
The strategic use of space is especially striking in the two installations in the Pavilion Gallery. For House with Bamboo Trees and Court Lady (1999), Chu combines an ornate ceramic figure four to five feet tall with a small bronze house on the floor about two feet away. It's a jarring juxtaposition, until you take into consideration that the artist is intentionally toying with our spatial perceptions. As a nearby text panel helpfully points out, Chu works from photographs rather than models, so the distinction between two and three dimensions becomes blurred.
As an experiment, try to position yourself in relation to the sculpture in such a way that the house appears to be off in the distance behind the more or less life-sized woman, the way the two might be in a photograph or painting. Even if you can trick your mind into accepting the illusion, I'll wager that your eyes will resist it. That interplay, that tug of war between perception and reality, is what gives the piece its significant punch.
The other work that shares the space also capitalizes on contrasts. Guardian and House (1999), on the opposite side of the room, consists of two components: a cast-iron figure, very crudely formed and suspended from a black rod that runs from its head up to a beam in the ceiling, and a three-level, towerlike structure that rests on a platform on the floor a few feet away. The guardian is dark, hard, forbidding, while the cast-urethane house is such a bright orange that it seems to glow.
There's a similar yin-yang dynamic in play among many of Chu's other pieces in the main MOCA galleries. Early in the show, we encounter The Bear (2002), a surprisingly evocative sculpture that touches on a great many aspects of the complicated relationship between human beings and bears. It's large enough to suggest a bear's imposing physical presence, and yet it's carved from hard, unyielding wood and so crudely formed that any menace is dissipated. Its stylized pose -- one foot forward, front legs outstretched, paws raised and facing forward -- suggests a ceremonial function but also recalls a teddy bear's invitation to hug. And like real bears, it's smelly, although in a subtler, friendlier way.
Perhaps because of this richness of association, bears are a favorite subject of Chu's, and Clearwater has grouped several other bear-based pieces with the wooden one. A cast-paper sculpture called #57 Bear Ink Washed, No Emblem on Chest is from a series the artist created in 1996, using Chinese funerary figures as inspiration. These bears are based on terra-cotta warriors that were designed for the tomb of Third-century-BC emperor Qin Shihaung Di. Again, Chu negates the potential threat of these big beasts by presenting them in stylized poses and making them hollow, with removable heads. She further emphasizes their ritual role by deliberately leaving spaces where you can see into the empty insides, and sometimes (although not with this particular piece) she emblazons their chests with iconic images.
Among the other bears in this gallery are some exquisite watercolors, also from 1996. Working with bright colors we would never normally associate with bears, Chu suggests the animals by accruing abstract daubs of pigment (Clearwater, not unreasonably, likens her to Cézanne in this regard). The technique, paradoxically, results in both wispiness and solidity, and Chu concentrates her imagery in the center of the paper, surrounding it with abundant unpainted space.
This approach to watercolor is highly adaptable, and Chu uses it for other subject matter, including people -- court figures, knights and warriors, musicians, horseback riders -- and landscapes. Study for Chinese Lady with Pigtails (1998) uses so few brushstrokes and such minimal paint that it's virtually nonexistent, as faint and elusive as a hint of perfume you can barely detect. And the landscapes, especially the largest one in the exhibition, almost abandon representation altogether in favor of abstract blocks of color.
Chu continues her explorations of duality in other works and other media at the end of the exhibition. One large open space is devoted to Maranao Man (2004), a freestanding cast-bronze sculpture of a Filipino boy wearing floral-print tunic and pants and standing on a log. Once again, there's an eye-teasing interplay between surface and substance, between wood and flesh and fabric and the metal that mimics them.