For a two-person show, the cultural perspectives represented in “Free Function,” now showing at Steve Turner in Los Angeles, are uncommonly far-flung. One of the featured artists, Jia, was born in Beijing and lives in Berlin. The other, Argentine sculptor Luciana Lamothe, lives and works in Buenos Aires.
What brings together these seemingly dissimilar artists from opposite sides of the world? It is, first of all, a shared interest in architecture. Jia, a trained architect, incorporates structural principles into paintings neatly ordered with carefully painted Chinese characters. Lamothe, on the other hand, uses building materials like plywood and iron pipes to create forbidding, industrial sculptures whose spikes and sharp angles call to mind scaffolding and the physical dangers of a construction site.
On first look, architectural underpinnings aside, the two artists don’t make for an obvious pairing. But the common space between Jia and Lamothe extends deeper and wider than their mutual enthusiasm for building design. In her own way, each artist grapples with function, subverting expectations for what a certain thing—be it a tangible object or an abstract concept—is supposed to do.
In Jia’s case, the “thing” is language, specifically the written language of traditional Chinese. Her latest paintings, which continue an ongoing series called “The Chinese Version,” are reactions to the state-imposed ban on traditional characters in the country’s character-simplification program from the 1950s. Though the program had a noble purpose—it was designed to encourage literacy—critics disparaged it due to the loss of so many characters in common usage.
In her work, Jia brings back some of those traditional characters in their original forms. But in her paintings, those hand-painted characters don’t always serve their original functions: While each character still represents an individual concept, they don’t necessarily make sense in the larger context of a sentence or an idea. “The Chinese Version” challenges the notion that written language must have a semantic purpose, suggesting instead that these forgotten characters can also have a simply visual or aesthetic value.
Lamothe does something similar in her accompanying sculptures. Just as Jia’s Chinese characters don’t always serve their intended purpose, Lamothe’s building materials are not restricted to practical use. By arranging her planks and pipes in unpredictable ways, she renders her materials elastic and dynamic, raising questions about the strength and security of the structures in which we live.
Together, the two artists challenge the viewer to consider the architecture of our lives—our buildings and language—and how the pieces, once broken, might be rebuilt.
“Jia and Luciana Lamothe: Free Function” is on view at Steve Turner, Los Angeles, Jul. 23–Aug. 27, 2016.