Who’s Afraid of Anne Chu? Exploring an Enigmatic Artist at the NGC


Anne Chu, Hanging Goat, 2008, anodized aluminum, painted cardboard, aluminum wire, and rope, 144.5 x 50.8 x 38.1 cm. NGC

Anne Chu is not for the faint of heart. An encounter with her rearing Single Bear (Polyester) is not unlike meeting a bear in the wild: intimidating and awe-inspiring. In an installation currently on view at the National Gallery of Canada (NGC), Chu’s intriguing take on the world can be seen in a pair of sculptural works and a quartet of works on paper.

The artist, who died on July 25, 2016, was known for defying expectations of what fine art looks like. “She’s a scary artist for those of us who like her work a lot, and I’m one of them,” said Marc Mayer, Director and CEO of the NGC, at a public talk on Chu’s work in late September 2016. "She’s not an artist who’s known for repeating herself. She covers her tracks from one show to the next. Once your intuition gets you to fall in love with the work, you’re worried the next exhibition is going to change your mind and make you question your intuition.

Born in New York City of Chinese émigré parents in 1959, Chu graduated from the Philadelphia College of Art in 1982 and received her MFA from Columbia University in 1985. Her work straddles past and present, representation and abstraction, East and West, painting and sculpture. It consists largely of bold mixed-media sculptures in wood, metal, resin, fabric, leather, or porcelain, as well as delicate watercolours and ink-based works on paper. She often combined figures and animals with elements drawn from folklore; just as often, however, her work could be nearly unrecognizable from one piece to the next. In deliberately remaking herself this way, Chu developed a unique visual language, celebrated in more than 30 solo exhibitions over a 25-year period.

“I always do watercolours, a series of drawings, at the same time as the sculptures,” said Anne Chu in a recent video for the Linda Pace Foundation. “My approach, generally, to material is I’ll use it for a specific sensation, but I don’t consider myself a master.”

Fittingly, the installation begins with four mixed-media works on paper from 2014: Rubric Study: Eques No. 3, Rubric Study: Eques No. 4, Rubric Study: Sling and Rubric Study: Sling No. 2 — works shown in Chu’s 2014 exhibition Rubric for the Eye at her New York gallery, Tracy Williams Ltd. Even without corresponding sculptures, they can be read as suggestions of works in progress, or to come. Softly painted cherub-like figures, horses, and a lion are partially framed by large swaths of dark fabric, brightly patterned cloth, or furry leather cut in jagged edges and arranged for 3D effect.

In earlier work, such as Single Bear (Polyester) (2008), Chu’s tendency to blur the line between useful object and conceptual creation is evident. Between the bear’s head and shoulders, there is a faint line: a seam, like that of a mask or headpiece of a costume for a mascot, or for theatre. While the bear has its own distinctive features — a waxy, blue, winking and slightly contorted face — its character depends on who tries it on for size and fills it with their presence. As such, the object becomes far more than a cast-resin pseudo-soft-sculpture creation, implying potential animation through human intervention.

“Chu began making bears after seeing images of the Terracotta Army in China’s Shaanxi province,” says Rhiannon Vogl, NGC Associate Curator of Contemporary Art. “In 1997, she created a series of her own bear warriors out of cold-pressed paper that she finished using charcoal rubbings, and emblazoned modern-day insignias on their chest plates. Their precarious, fragile quality was in direct contrast to their size and stature, giving them an intimidating yet comic quality.”

In a similar way, Hanging Goat (2008) also implies potential utility in an impractical object. Dangling limply from the ceiling, the goat is a marionette without a play. Its eerie deconstructed form is also reminiscent of a butchered animal. It would be hard to get past that darker implication, were it not for how haphazard and unassuming the sculpture appears. It is a humble creature, a modest offering — but at the same time, an unspoken challenge, like it or not.

“Anne Chu reminds us that art is about being creative, letting go of constraints and just making,” says Vogl. “With her work, there isn’t necessarily anything else to get. She is expressing herself visually, bodily, as a way of exercising her need to make things.”

Blending the traditional with a modern artistic vocabulary all her own, Anne Chu found inspiration in both her subject matter and her materials. When depicting figures or animals such as rabbits, goats, birds and bears, Chu used their forms not as narrative supports, but as a way of exploring materials and meaning. In challenging viewers to look more closely — whether at a possible “seam” in a life-sized resin bear, or the disarticulated abstract forms of a goat “marionette” — Chu created a dialogue between maker, object, and audience that was both forceful and inspiring.

The installation of works by Anne Chu is on view in Gallery B201 of the Contemporary Art Galleries at the National Gallery of Canada until December 5, 2016. Contemporary Conversations — the series in which Chu’s work was discussed by her gallerist Tracy Williams and NGC Director Marc Mayer — continues in 2017 with a line-up of artists soon to be announced.

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