By Valencia Tong
Why is materiality important? Besides the form and content of an artwork, the materials that compose an art object reveal a myriad of information, from the artist’s background to their life philosophies. Throughout history, artists experiment with a vast array of materials to construct narratives, as well as to enhance visual experience, pushing boundaries in a radical manner.
The group exhibition “Radical Materiality,” situated in the Rem Koolhaas-designed gallery space of Lehmann Maupin in the historic Pedder Building in Hong Kong, features three international artists: Mary Corse, Liu Wei and Nari Ward. Their works all explore the use of unconventional materials. By creating a dialogue centering on the theme of materiality, the show invites visitors to contemplate on the significance of mediums in the art-making process.
Upon entering the gallery through a wood-paved corridor, visitors encounter the geometric sculptural works of Beijing-based artist Liu Wei. The artist’s concern about the phenomenon of rapid urbanization in post-Mao China manifests in many of his creations. Liu’s conceptual themes resonate with the experience of urban dwellers, and architectural elements are often found in his art. In his “Exotic Lands” series (2011–13), Liu assembles doors, wood and stainless steel in geometric configurations, with a rectangular door occupying the center of each work. The process of disintegration and construction echoes that of the transplantation of new buildings into developing neighborhoods, causing an alienating effect. The matte pastel hues of the assemblages in the main exhibition area are juxtaposed against his freestanding, shiny metallic sculpture, Untitled (2015), placed nearby. The sculpture consists of mirrors cut and bent in irregular shapes and attached together at various angles on a metal structure. As viewers circumambulate the sculpture, their reflection recalls that which is seen in a carnival house of mirrors. From the distorted images shown in the mirrors, visitors catch a glimpse of Mary Corse’s painting behind them across the gallery space.
Los Angeles-based artist Mary Corse creates minimalist paintings, and is associated with the Light and Space movement that emerged in Southern California in the 1960s. The affiliated artists were interested in the way light can be used as a medium; hence, they experimented with industrial technologies to achieve their desired effect, such as materials for aviation and cars. At first glance her two-meter-tall painting, Untitled (White Inner Band, Beveled) (2011), is reminiscent of the white-on-white aesthetics of Russian modern artist Kazimir Malevich’s art. Despite the subtle variations of white dividing the work into three vertical sections, Corse’s painting camouflages against the white wall of the gallery. Yet upon closer examination, reflected light from the surroundings twinkle on the work’s surface, creating an illusion that fluctuates as the perspective changes. The sheer size of the painting contributes to the viewing experience, as if inviting viewers to play hide-and-seek with stars in the Milky Way. Corse’s experiments with the optical and subjectivity started in the late 1960s, which led her to incorporate reflective glass beads into her art practice. Commenting on her works in an interview from 2012, Corse noted: “For me painting has never been about the paint, but what the painting does. I didn’t want to make a picture of light; I wanted to put the actual light in the painting so I searched for materials that would do this.”
Back at the Hong Kong show, Jamaican-born New York-based artist Nari Ward is represented through three works, which demonstrate his interest in constructing installations and sculptural pieces with unconventional readymade materials. These include shoelaces, fragments of basketballs, and copper tacks. In Scape (2012), shoelaces of various colors and textures protrude from the wall of the gallery. The artist arranges them into the shape of a ladder. At the top, there is an outline that symbolizes an opening, indicating a way out. Unlike Corse, whose paintings capture the serene glow of light, Ward’s works focus on the emotions embedded in contemporary everyday objects, particularly those found on city streets. In Class is in Session (2012), made with Krink marker, basketball trading cards and collaged basketball mounted on aluminum, Ward examines notions of race, poverty and consumer culture. Basketball is a quintessential American sport that deeply intertwines with popular culture; meanwhile, trading cards epitomize how such entertainment is commoditized and consumed. The specific materials of Ward’s choice showcase the collective memory encapsulated within. By drawing the attention to materiality, the exhibition creates a dialogue among the trio, revealing issues that are worth meditating on.