"No One Makes the Head of a Woman Like I Do": Chinese Sculptor Wang Keping on His New Show

by Julia Halperin Published: March 30, 2011

Wang Keping's career has not shared the stratospheric trajectory marked out by his fellow prominent Chinese artists. Famous in China, he has so far not "crossed over" to attain Western visibility in the same way that artists like Cai Guo-Qiang and Zhang Huan have, even though Wang has been living and working in Paris for more than 20 years. But if you haven't heard of him yet, he isn't worried — he believes you will sooner or later. "It takes time for people to be acknowledged," the 62-year-old artist told ARTINFO on the eve of his new exhibition at SoHo's Zürcher Studio, held in conjunction with Asian Contemporary Art Week. "There aren't very many people in the world who understand what I'm making."

Keping emerged with a bang in the late 1970s, when he teamed up with several young artists — including the then-unknown provocateur Ai Weiwei — to form a group called "the Stars." A renegade exhibition of political artwork that the artists mounted in 1979 outside Beijing's National Art Gallery, after being denied inclusion in an official show there, brought the group to worldwide notice. Wang was pictured on the front page of the New York Times, and within a year, the group was showing inside the National Gallery instead of outside its gates.

By the mid-80s, however, members of the group began to scatter, and while Keping is still close friends with his confederates from the Stars, their work "has become very different," he said. Emigrating to France in 1984, he continued to create tactile, glowing wooden sculptures — recalling the totemic modernist carvings of Gauguin or Matisse — though over time his work has become less political (a piece envisioning Mao as Buddha had created a sensation in Beijing) and more tender, depicting women and couples.

Wang feels this work is neglected by journalists, critics, and museums because he doesn't make installations or strictly conceptual art. "They don't understand because it's so simple," said Wang. "You don't need to write ten pages to explain it." His most recent work, now on display at Zürcher, is also his most minimal to date. The modestly sized figures — some stocky with bulbous breasts, others long and lean — are closer to late Henry Moore in their near abstraction. But Wang says they are still connected to older traditions — ancient African wood figures, Han sculptures from China, and marbles from ancient Greece.

The sculptor's long, laborious process is designed to let him stay as faithful as possible to the original shape of the wood. He prefers to chop down the branches himself in the forests of the French countryside; after leaving the wood to dry out for one to three years, he carves it, smooths it with sandpaper, and scorches it with a blowtorch to achieve a dark lacquered surface. The result is a sinuous form that suggests, rather than represents, a body. Here a small knot in a tree trunk becomes a bun at the base of a woman's neck, there a split-off branch becomes an outstretched arm. Swirling branches are transformed into moments of intimacy between two figures. ("Some of them are too intimate to show," chuckled Wang.)

"No one knows wood better than Wang," said Gwenolee Zurcher, his gallerist. Wang smiled slightly. "No one makes the head of a woman like I do," he said.