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Metonymy, Mortality, and Wang Keping’s Women

Wang Keping, “Moon Goddess,” 2012. Plane tree, 21 x 24 x 9”, Courtesy of the Artist and Zürcher Paris/NY.

New York
Zürcher Gallery
May 8 – June 23, 2013

Its theme might be older than the Venus of Willendorf, but Women, a solo exhibition of 12 sculptures by contemporary Chinese artist Wang Keping proves that the female form can simultaneously reference tradition and cast it aside for an aesthetic suspended between rusticity and urbanity. This is a complicated maneuver and Keping is uniquely qualified to perform it. The artist came of age during Mao’s Cultural Revolution (1966–76) and in its wake, Keping’s attempts at self-expression were ruthlessly policed and censored by oppressive government checks. Finally, Keping—an autodidact—discovered that the most eloquent expression came in mute forms, in sculpture. But by 1984, government control became unbearable and Keping emigrated to Paris, where he still lives. The works in Women are less overt political statements than silent witnesses to an artist’s struggle to balance cultural inheritance with exile. If the ritual bronze vessels (dating to 1650 B.C.) of a Chinese past are one inspiration, his naked female figures are just as likely to emulate the S-curve of a medieval Madonna or the billowing proportions of a Lachaise.

Women resists domestication by comely adjectives or colonization by art criticism’s imperialistic taxonomies. It matters little whether Keping’s art presses the limits of biomorphism or courts abstraction. Categorization may offer the illusion of explanation, but such glib interpretive orderliness threatens to obscure rather than reveal the radical, endlessly suggestive vulnerability that throbs through the works. And when that vulnerability is overlooked, these pieces could easily be dismissed as unremarkable Brancusi derivatives.

But these sculptures are far from unremarkable and Keping resembles nobody so much as Keping. Ironically, that singular quality of vulnerability becomes most conspicuous when we conceive of the works not as artistic figures but as a rhetorical one, as material metonymy.

A cousin—and occasional doppelgänger—of metaphor, metonymy is a curious creature. While metaphors are founded on hidden similarities between unrelated objects or concepts, metonymies are “neighborly.” They are the substitutions we make when using one idea to express another not on the recommendation of subtle commonality but rather simple propinquity. Substituting an author’s name for his or her œuvre is an example of metonymy.

Metonymy endlessly inflects casual discourse and it offers a conceptual framework for Women. Every work is a metonymy lent physical form—each sculpture replaces life with its ambitious relative, art. And we are not permitted to forget it. Keping’s medium is wood. He translates the natural irregularities of acacias, poplars, and others into examples of figural anatomy. The lenticels that once speckled a birch’s bark become ears; a row of knots that starred the gnarled surface of a plane tree is reborn as vertebrae. And everywhere growth rings, chronicles of arboreal age, are pulsing veins.

Significantly, nearly half of the works belong to the artist’s Woman series: a group of stylized, modern fertility idols with pendulous breasts. For all the traditional associations of the feminine with fecundity, even the latter-day Cycladic sisters of the series monumentalize another organism’s death, though it is only a single tree.

By polishing life into artifice, the sculptures suggest a parallel substitution; they perform life’s slippage into death with disarming ease. And this passage conveys a disturbing theme. That life and art—and, by extension, death and life—are so readily interchanged insinuates that some qualities we most want to believe are secure and eternal are also infected with mutability. Accountability is undermined everywhere: fragility compromises strength, intimacy has all the permanence of a mirage.

The tension between strength and weakness is knit into the very poses of Keping’s deities. Tellingly,“Goddess”(2000–12) and “Moon Goddess”(2012), exude exhaustion. Both nearly prostrate, the former curls her body tightly, head resting on knee while the latter assumes a more extreme pose. With forehead pressed to arms, legs resolutely bent, “Moon Goddess” seems little more than a corporeal globe. Strangely, both manage to covey an impalpable power. In “Goddess”the figure’s back is wide, girded by resolute shoulders and imprinted with a sacred tattoo designed by patterns in the wood’s grain. Somehow, that back invokes all of the power and unknowability of the deity. Similarly, our “Moon Goddess”may be wound into a ball, but encoded in her form are repeated symbols of the celestial. Within the circle of her orblike body, lunar phases emerge—crescents appear as leg folds to body, a half moon materializes between arm and breast.

The theme of intimacy is even more prominent—and perhaps nothing captures it as elegantly as “Buttocks” (2012), which puts a hidden, fetishized area of the body on display and bravely strips it of any claim to perfection. The buttocks droop like aging balloons, striations in the bark recall wrinkles. This imperfect specimen anticipates the uncertainties of a love that finds its source in mad eros. When the body loses its power to inspire sexual desire, is it abandoned or prized all the more? The viewer is allowed no reassurances. The piece itself is exiled from any real body, literally detached.

Women is striking but disquieting. Art replaces life with ease, throwing into uncertainty qualities that are best believed unassailable—like intimacy and strength—haunting them with possibilities of rejection and fragility.

And yet, while art may replace life it does not immortalize it. Notably, the figures have a burnished bronze-like patina. Here wood, so prone to decay and corruption, replaces a proverbially deathless metal. By invoking bronze, Keping references eternity but does so with the stamp of the impermanent. And this is the second metonym: such impassive muses are not creatures for all time; they too must confront mortality.

33 Bleecker St. // NY, NY


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2013

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