New York

Anne Chu

Amid the sea of slick objects in West Chelsea, Anne Chu’s larger-than-life puppet sculptures come across as shockingly raw and old-fashioned. But craftsmen of the past would never have constructed objects in this way, leaving things slightly unfinished and full of clues as to their making. Pure anachronism, you might think—but their fluidity of reference implies a global and chronological breadth that’s very contemporary. These figures function like fissures between historical epochs and aesthetic categories, a mechanism fundamental to the way they work.

In the eight sculptures on view, Chu alluded lightly to a variety of sources: from commedia dell’arte to Velázquez, Edgar Allan Poe to ancient Chinese art, animation to ethnographic wood carving. In the front gallery, three awkward figures stood on a platform, with strings from marionette crosses wired to the ceiling attached (uselessly) to their heads and hands. Tracollo (all works 2003) referenced the main male character who’s bested by a young woman in Giovanni Pergolesi’s eighteenth-century opera. The figure’s roughly carved wooden head, wrapped in white cloth like a wounded soldier’s, sat atop a wire-armature body dressed in a pajama-like plaid suit. Next to him, Charming Girl, with a choppily hewn head and dress of flowing fabric, was paired with a tiny wooden suitor. The bottom-heavy Bestial’s patchwork fabric pelt was topped by a vaguely animal head; watching over the group was the bronze Raven perched high on a gallery wall.

On a platform behind these sculptures, The Puppeteer, slouching like a scarecrow, was joined by the lumpen Landscape Marionette II. In the back room stood El Primo, based on the dwarf in Velázquez’s painting of the same name. This lone figure on a pedestal proved on inspection to be hollow: Chu generally glues together blocks of wood and then carves them into figures with a chainsaw; holes in the finished products undermine an initial impression of weight and solidity.

To stand among these works is to be simultaneously in the presence of something familiar and something radically new. The job of the viewer is to forge a link between the two (similar to the notion of synthetic vision in Impressionist painting by which the viewer has to fill in the perceptual information left out by the painter). Chu presents a conceptual and contextual rift to her viewers, forcing us to draw from vastly different areas of knowledge, experience, or history to create an ambiguous new whole.

Like many contemporary humans, Chu’s sculptures are cobbled together from disparate cultural sources (the artist herself was born in New York to Chinese parents). And, as with all marionettes and dolls, the figures have an uncanny quality. This strange pathos is amplified by their bandages, splinters, and various physical flaws; they are anti- or fallen heroes, with heavy heads and insubstantial bodies. Nameless (unlike Harlequin or Gilles), their muttlike but authentic quality bestows on them a sense of both modern and timeless humanity.

Martha Schwendener