IT is common for visitors at an art exhibitions to see “Do Not Touch” signs. But that’s not the case at Chinese-American artist Peng XIaojia’s solo show “Hidden Dimensions.”
His exhibition currently underway at the Original Song Gallery features nearly 50 sculptures and photos. Peng invites viewers to hold his small sculptures in their hands, unfolded and moved.
“One must hold my sculptures, then the charm of these small pieces can emerge. The real metaphor of my works can only be revealed when viewers play with them,” says Peng.
Since sculpture art is usually enjoyed and appreciated by walking around and viewing it from different angles, the popularity in creating big-sized pieces has sculptures closely linked with public art.
However, Peng offers another interpretation of what sculptures look like. He emphasizes the extreme intricacy of the cast.
All made in wood, through superb technique, Peng’s sculptures contain pegs, hinges, doors and assorted moving parts.
Frankly speaking, it is a bold practice as it challenges both the aesthetic taste and the viewers’ understanding of sculptures.
For example, each of the four plain-looking wooden boxes displays a Chinese character on the surface. On first sight it does not appear to be anything special, but on closer inspection will visitors find an intricate carving of flowers at the bottom of each box, implying the four changing seasons.
Another weirdly shaped piece features a wooden ball inside a latticed square, inlaid with several trumpet-shaped wooden objects.
“I always remember one of Rodin’s students once saying that sculpture is all about the centrifugal force and the force of gravity,” Peng explains. “This piece is a typical example. You can see the ball is trying to break the bondage of the outside square. In my eyes, the conflict between the centrifugal force and the force of gravity fuses a strong power within the work itself. The trumpet-shaped object on the ball is similar to a release of the stifled power inside.”
Born in Beijing in 1955, Peng graduated from the sculpture department of the National Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing in 1982. But his emotional link with wood and sculpture started earlier.
At the age of 16, Peng was sent to study wood-carving at a crafts factory in Shanghai during the “cultural revolution” (1966-76).
“My sisters were already there (in Shanghai), and my parents were then in prison,” Peng recalls. “So I was taken care of by my big brother in Shanghai. I learned painting before, so I was quite happy to study wood-carving there.”
The solid shape of wood and its particular texture became deeply rooted in his mind, even though he didn’t expect that it would stay with him for the rest of his life.
When some of his classmates at the factory were laid off years later, Peng, again, escaped the regular route and traveled to the United States for further studies.
“I admit that I often shy away from something bad in my life, but at the same time, something good as well,” he says.
The time when Peng left for the US coincided with the 85 New Wave Art Movement in China, which is also known as the birth of Chinese contemporary art.
Peng witnessed the art scene in his home country starting to boom. However, he never regretted leaving. He leads a quiet life in New Hampshire and keeps a low profile as an artist.
For the last few decades, Peng has worked on a different series of artworks, some emphasizing Chinese culture, some exploring the limits of Western realistic sculpture, while others fusing Eastern and Western styles.
Thanks to the solid wood-carving techniques he learned as a boy, and the nurturing of Chinese traditional culture, Peng has established a signature in his art.
“Traditional craftsmanship has always been part of the Chinese way of sculpture, and I hope that my sculptures can function as a philosophical book beyond their physical forms.”
Date: Now through August 31 (closed on Sundays), 9:30am-5pm
Venue: Original Song Gallery,
Bldg 3, 731 Hongxu Rd
Q: Why do you name this exhibition “Hidden Dimensions?”
A: What I am trying to express through my work is not so straightforward. I like to add some humor, something playful or naughty or metaphorical behind the surface. For example, at the entrance gate, visitors will find two curved shapes facing each other. However, tell you the truth, I hide an angel between the two shapes, and the viewers are only able to view it when they see it beneath.
Q: You once studied at a wood-carving factory, but don’t you think, apart from the techniques you learned, the shapes and images in traditional wood-carving are rigid and stereotyped?
A: Haha, I know what you mean. But I was lucky to encounter my teacher, Xu Baoqing (1926-2008), founder of Shanghai boxwood carving. He used to make statues for the Christian churches, so the Western aesthetic taste already had its influence on him.
Q: When you first arrived in the US, did you have any financial problems like some of your peers who worked in restaurants to earn a living?
A: I think I’m a lucky person. I had a scholarship from a university in Oklahoma and stayed there for four years.
My study in the US really widened my scope in art. I visited many museums and absorbed the knowledge in contemporary art history.
Upon graduation, I furthered my studies in Maryland, of course with another scholarship. Frankly speaking, I am not a person with plans, and I am not a person who clearly knows what I want — I only know what I don’t.
Q: Why does wood, as a medium, always inspire you?
A: In my eyes, any piece of wood can breathe. They are all filled with vitality. I never give up creating with wood even after I opened a furniture restoration studio.
I repaired some antique American and Chinese furniture and provided consultancy to museums and collectors. But making my own wooden sculptures is an emotional release for me; I really enjoy the process.
Q: You seem to prefer small-sized works. Why don’t you create something bigger?
A: Because I feel that I will lose my control on the work itself when it becomes bigger.
Q: Besides sculptures, the exhibition also includes some of the photos you shot. Is photography an extension of your art?
A: You can see how much I love manual labor. These black-and-white photos are another example. I shot some female nude pictures before and thought of printing them on sensitive paper and overlapping with a certain background image. It took me hours in front of the computer. But I am never bored of such work, although it might seem boring to others.
This is the first time that I have shown my pictures to the public, and I am curious to see the feedback from the viewers.
Q: Are you curious to find out what kind of people like your works?
A: No, I am not. Perhaps I don’t have a big brain to care about things other than art. I was told that foreigners liked my works better.
I am the type of person who can reconcile to any situation. I create my works for myself, not for others.
Have you seen one of my pieces at the exhibition? Inside the box there is a carving board featuring fight among dragons. Under this board, I hide scorched earth. This is my attitude toward life and fame.