Galerie Nathalie Obadia is very pleased to present, for the first time in Paris, the work of Chinese artist, Wang Keping, who has lived and worked outside Paris for the past thirty years. This exhibition takes place one year after Simplicité – Nature – Sensualité, which was shown at the Brussels gallery.
Born in 1949, near Beijing, Wang Keping is one of the founders of contemporary Chinese art, mainly due to the key role he played during the cultural revolution in China, in the 1970s, which led to him leaving for France in 1984. Since then, he has developed a masterful body of work, which explores all that wood can offer and is considered, internationally, to be one of the most important contributions made to contemporary sculpture.
The exhibition, Sculptures sculptées, presents an exceptional group of works that testify to the artist’s ongoing commitment to exploring the medium as well as to his relationship with sculpture, a bond that is simultaneously humble, intimate, and spiritual and that he defines thus: “I am a sculptor and I sand with my hands. ” By mastering traditional carving techniques, according to an approach that is timeless and transcends any notion of style, Wang Keping manages to capture the quintessence of his subjects. A wide array of themes, representative of the artist’s work, are presented in the exhibition: female busts, couples, embraces, animal hybrids... Many different variations on these figures punctuate the exhibition space.
Wang Keping emerged on the art scene in 1979, by founding the dissident group known today as “Xing Xing” (literally “Stars”), with now-established artists including Ai Wei Wei, Ma Desheng, and Huang Rui. This avant-garde movement rejected the Socialist Realism imposed by the Communist Party, and staged their first exhibition/manifesto on the railings of the National Art Museum of China in Beijing. There, Wang Keping showed a sculpture that would become emblematic of the resistance to the aesthetic canons advocated by the government: Silence, which depicts a one-eyed face, distorted by a howling mouth choked with a cylinder. As the personification of censorship, this pioneering work foretold the inescapable future of this artistic manifestation, which would quickly be shut down by the authorities. Soon after, on the 30th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, they launched a movement campaigning for artistic freedom. Though the government attempted to quash these demonstrations, the impact of the event outstripped the repressive environment, with the international press immediately relaying this very public position-taking. This is considered today as one of the origins of the affirmation of contemporary Chinese art. In fact, The New York Times chose Wang Keping’s sculpture for the cover of their October 19 issue.
A second exhibition, a year later, at the National Art Museum of Beijing, sealed the fate of the Stars Art Group’s main protagonists. The event triggered unprecedented popular infatuation, to which the government responded in the form of a general repression, marking the end of the Beijing Spring and leading to the exile of most of the movement’s founding members.
Upon arriving in France, in 1984, Wang Keping distanced himself from the political engagement of his early years, and progressively turned toward a more universal form of art, mostly based on the carving of wood, a living material whose expressive powers he constantly reveals. His work embraces and sublimates the properties of the wood the artist selects, in an aesthetic and spiritual quest inspired by Taoist philosophy, by the ancient statuary of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.), but also by the popular art of rural China. In effect, it is from the veins, the knots, and the grooves, the more or less uneven surfaces of the pieces of wood, that the artist derives the essential forms of his subjects. Each section of wood is thus carefully chosen and respected in its entirety. This primordial relationship with nature, as first source of inspiration and formal matrix, also manifests itself in the care with which Wang Keping treats the surface of his works. In fact, to achieve the sculptures’ smooth, soft, compulsively touchable “skin,” Wang Keping follows a number of steps: the sculptures are first polished so as to erase all traces left by tools and to leave visible only the relief innate to the material, after which they are meticulously burnt with a blowtorch, thus acquiring a final nuance unique to each sculpture. This treatment accentuates the sensual dimension conveyed by the suggestive lines and the generous curves of the works, which, in their harmony, are bearers of truth.
It is no surprise that his very pure art, realized in the solitude of his studio, is often compared to the works of historic artists like Auguste Rodin, Alberto Giacometti, Henry Moore, and, especially, Constantin Brancusi—an affiliation that Wang Keping is proud of, at a time when work requiring this amount of patience and made by the artist’s own hand is becoming all the more rare.