Historically, art media have articulated, shaped and defined the very conception of artworks. The artistic material is the matter through which artwork manifests itself in the physical world but also an entity with its own purpose. As such, the artist respects his media as motivator when conceiving the artwork while allowing it to flow into and with his creativity. A successful artist sees his materials not as objects to be forced into his/her own conception but rather as collaborative elements that perform with him in synchrony.
The availability of materials in any one historical time period is very telling for not only does it betray the creativity of its artists it also exhibits the material production of the individual culture. In ancient Egypt sculptors used acacia and sycamore wood for sarcophagi, thrones, furnishings, and sculptures influenced by natural motifs. But, they also made use of their local quarries for granite as well as the Nile hillsides that produced limestone. Alabaster was another popular medium as also basalt, diorite, red porphyry and copper. But, for their miniature pieces the Egyptians used ivory, or other precious stones that they worked with flint instruments. An unprecedented variety of media was used in ancient China as far back as the Xia and Zhou periods, for decorative and utilitarian sculptures that were made of clay, and later tomb sculptures of jade, ivory, lacquer ware, silver, gold and bronze. The Minoan Greeks used ivory, and precious metals for small sculptures and terra-cotta for their larger architectural decorative pieces. In the Classical period, the Greeks used stone but excelled in bronze casting with in-lays as well as making silver and gold jewels. In Medieval Europe monks painted on parchment, a stretched and treated animal skin while paper came into greater use by the end of the 14th Century in Renaissance Italy. No matter what time period or even availability, artists have in their creativity have found new materials with which to express themselves.
In recent history synthetic chemistry has brought about a profusion of new technologies in the textile, paper, dye production and eventually excelled in the development of plastics. This malleable material has been used extensively in art because it is readily available and easy to manipulate as synthetic material that can be shaped, heated, and molded. Bakelite was famous for radios and other luxury items of the Deco era, while acrylic, polyurethane, epoxy, nylon, synthetic paints, synthetic gesso, rubber and textile fibers define contemporary artistic production. Consequently, the 21st Century is known for a plethora materials and subjects that break with the past, as well as those that look back for inspiration and at times actually engage with history outright.
The inventive nature of Cang Xin’s Evolution and Involution made of black metallic components and machine parts, results in a contraption that speaks of human progress and digression. This piece is comprised of a series of nested human heads that move up and down mechanically. Because of its mechanical apparatus it best represents the current trends in art construction that align it with kinetic art that owes its lineage to Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel of 1913. The work’s animation is provided by electrical means that drive its motion and sound. Conceptually, the sculpture speaks volumes about humankind through its form but also its elegant coloration and rounded shapes. The heads are depicted in a generalized style or type and contain a rough looking piece at the very top that alludes to both a rock and a cloud. If a rock then metaphorically it can mean that man is carrying the burden of life, but read as cloud it can mean that he’s not well grounded in reality or that he’s spiritual. Nevertheless, this sculpture very astutely epitomizes the idea of human evolution through its graduated size diminution and upward direction. And, it can also be read as devolution to materialism through its downward course and enlargement.
All the artists in this show used a variety of materials developing their repertoires while respecting their chosen media. Rather than fighting their materials’ natural tendencies, they were able to follow their structural laws, while considering their means both in their conception and in their execution to produce successful artworks.