Of the Duality of Bears

There are echoes of ancient ceremonial figures, but Chu's work is unmistakably contemporary.

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.

A knockout sculpture nearby, called Two Legs (2001), is Chu's most ambitious attempt to include abstraction and figuration in the same piece. It consists of two bolted-together forms, one made of gray metal, the other of amber urethane, and only after a close look do you discover that the forms are fragments of an implied but absent whole, a knight's lower leg and that of his horse.

The remainder of the exhibition is organized into two groupings, one featuring 14 figures, the other with nine. The latter, which are positioned across an elevated wooden platform, are made from wood, plastic, and (in one case) bronze and bear such descriptive titles as Fat Man on Horseback and Court Lady with Scarves. They're modeled after funerary ceramics from the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907), and the artist has painted them with oil and casein to re-create the appearance of glazed ceramic.

The other, much more imposing grouping includes a bird, a few humans, a couple of pieces Chu calls "landscape marionettes," and some creatures that aren't quite human but aren't quite animal either. The bird is a small bronze raven that rests on a perch discreetly mounted high on a wall, while the other figures, most of them slightly larger than life, dot the museum's largest open space.

In a nod to Chu's marionette influences, about half of the pieces are attached to ropes and strings that extend up into the ceiling's open beams. Six works are from a series called Nine Hellish Spirits, created in the past year, and they truly live up to their Faustian name: smoke-fired ceramics with facial deformities, misshapen limbs, and gaping holes that expose their empty interiors. Some have tails that look like skewers of charred marshmallows, and one has a detached arm, tethered to the torso by a chain and ending in a medieval mace instead of a hand.

As in the other works on display here, Chu somehow imbues these potentially fearsome grotesques with an eerie beauty. She's a master at reconciling seeming opposites, which is what makes this exhibition so captivating and such a worthy successor to the Louise Bourgeois show.

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