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Yu-Wen Wu is a Boston-based, Taiwanese-American artist whose work examines issues of displacement, arrival, and assimilation. At the crossroads of art, science, politics, and social issues, her practice includes drawing, sculpture, site-specific video installations, community engaged practices, and public art. 

The material conversations within Wu’s practice foreground the artist’s interest in navigating her subjectivity as an immigrant to the United States and a member of the Asian diaspora. Tea, gold, and red thread are significant and recurring forms in her work, operating as cultural and personal touchstones. Intentions (III), which is composed of three strands created for Wu’s presentation in the 2023 James and Audrey Foster Prize, brings together these materials in the form of wrapped, gilded orbs that approximate Wu’s grandmother’s Buddhist prayer beads. “I remember sitting on her lap as a young child and listening to her hushed voice recite prayers and intentions,” shares the artist, who, to make this work, fashioned knotted strands of 108 (referring to the number of prayers within Buddhism) or 88 (being an auspicious number within Chinese culture) orbs in groupings that refer to other numerical systems of value, such as binary code.

Each orb is made of brewed and dried Taiwanese tea, collected by her mother and aunt, and gilded with painted gold—a material notable both for its associations with preciousness and prosperity as well as a specific reference to the history of Chinese immigration to the United States at the height of the Gold Rush. The red thread recalls ideas of bloodlines, community, and family ties across generations, geographies, and lifetimes. “Unlike circular prayer beads,” explains Wu, here the arrangement of the strands “are suspended in space, resting in a spiral, referring to open possibilities and developing intentions.” 

Kathleen Ryan is a sculptor who is best known for her three-dimensional sculptures of moldy fruit recalling vanitas and their reminder of the impermanence of life. In her practice, Ryan manipulates found and handmade forms with surprising materials—delicate grapes made of concrete, flower seed pods from a repurposed yellow showerhead, and mold using precious gemstones.  

Ryan’s series of larger-than-life, studded Bad Fruits harness the material and visual excess of gems to comment on how and why objects are valued. Fruit has long been a symbol of human consumption and decay in Western art—from Dutch Golden Age still life painting to the beaded fruit craft tradition of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s that influences her work. Playing on a genre of craft objects often given little monetary value and relegated to the shelves of thrift stores, Ryan’s work considers luxury and value.  

In Ryan’s Bad Lemon (Cameo), fake gems adorn the artificial lemon’s healthy yellow rind, while precious pearls and crystals are reserved for the moldy bacterial growths, a playful inversion of what is wanted or valued and what makes the lemon “bad.” The artist’s meticulous translation of a natural phenomenon like decay through the accumulation and arrangement of thousands of stones and beads renders the surfaces of her sculptures mesmerizing. This play between attraction and revulsion and the benefits of close looking are at the heart of Ryan’s singular practice. 

Woody De Othello is best known for playful ceramics, such as those associated with Northern California’s so-called Funk art of the late 1960s and early ’70s. An artist who foregrounds material experimentation and process, Othello features anthropomorphized domestic objects—clocks, phones, television remotes, and air conditioners—imbued with human emotions in his sculptures. According to the artist, the “objects mimic actions that humans perform.”  

Othello’s tomorrow always never is features an assemblage of several objects that recur throughout his sculptural practice, including scaled up versions of a twin bell alarm clock, a push-button telephone, a houseplant, a picture frame, a stack of books, and a handheld mirror. The objects are staged on a bright blue shelving unit that appears to bend precariously under the weight it bears. Modeled in Othello’s signature form of cartoonish figuration, each densely glazed ceramic object is slumped over and losing its shape, as if exhausted or melting. This humorous approach to representation expresses varying emotional and psychological states. At the center of the sculpture there is a drooping orange telephone and an alarm clock with wilting hands—instruments of communication and time that possess a degree of nostalgia, a sense of time slipping away. Othello’s tactile ceramic constructions convey a sense of vulnerability, which is particular to the medium but also to the way that these objects appear to be, as the artist describes them, “affected with the same type of spirit and energy as a figure.” 

In a career spanning over twenty years, Arlene Shechet embraces chance when making sculpture dictated by materials that change from one state to another before solidifying as a finished object. So and So and So and So and On and On is one of Shechet’s most significant works, marking a new direction within her practice. A ceramic sculptural diptych, the work is composed of two round, glazed forms displayed on top of irregular stacks of kiln bricks. The large, fleshy pink heads—whose color references, among other things, the paintings of one of Shechet’s heroes, Philip Guston—function as three-dimensional vessels for the gestural application of color. They are glazed so that the roseate colors layer in zigzagging paths across textured surfaces, with eyelike blue dots interspersed. The glazed and stacked kiln bricks, some white, some outlined thickly in black, are readymade pedestals for the bust-like, handmade ceramic forms. As integral features of Shechet’s sculptures, pedestals dynamically contrast with the elements they support. Here, the columns of kiln bricks reference the process by which the larger forms came into being, gesturing at the presence of the kiln itself as the arbiter of material transformation. Such interplay of forms demonstrates the artist’s dedication to challenging sculptural conventions, grounded, as she says, by “an experience of sculpture as a language for transmitting information, feelings, beliefs, and thoughts.” 

Whether in painting, sculpture, fabric, text, or performance, Jeffrey Gibson’s mixed-media work draws on a wide swath of visual languages, from popular fashion and queer culture, to American modernism inflected through Cherokee and Choctaw aesthetic traditions. Trained as a painter, Gibson describes his approach to the act of painting as akin to beadwork and weaving: “In my head, I [am] applying paint as if I were creating a woven fabric or adorning a textile.” Early in his practice, Gibson expanded on this technique further by incorporating different materials and objects, such as beads, glass, blankets, and metal jingles into works that mixed different aesthetic traditions. Gibson is interested in this hybridity as a way to counter dominant narratives of Native life and community in the Americas, particularly the prevalent misconception that Indigenous art traditions are fixed in the past, rather than within a continuum of adaptation and innovation. “It’s not just that we’ve survived,” Gibson reflects, “there are moments in which we have thrived, we’ve found happiness, we’ve found joy, we’ve found celebration. We’ve always carved out space for ourselves.” The flag, a form of political iconography and a recurring motif in the artist’s practice, is one lens through which Gibson investigates these claims to place, land, and sovereignty to visually critique narratives of settler colonialism. Layering vibrant geometric blocks of color painted on one side of a found wool army blanket, Flag reflects Gibson’s signature visual language and proposal of creative futures for the artistic act through mixed art traditions and their associations. 

Berlin-based artist Haegue Yang makes intricate and visually compelling sculptures from quotidian and domestic found materials, such as clothing racks, light bulbs, and graph paper. Nosy Clown – Fungus Powered comes from a larger series of light sculptures entitled Nosy Clown. These works feature common materials accumulated on wheeled clothing racks. Juxtaposing organic and synthetic elements, the handmade and the mass produced, Nosy Clown – Fungus Powered incorporates the artist’s hand-knit pom-poms and chaotically strewn pieces of yarn, alongside a red aluminum venetian blind and interwoven rope and cloth-covered cord, all topped with a vibrantly colored feather duster. Like others from the series, the sculpture is anthropomorphic and clown-like in appearance, especially with the feather duster resembling a clown nose. As in other of Yang’s works on casters, it is both a discrete object and one imbued with potential energy that might be activated if, and when, it is set in motion. Through its use of the artist’s signature materials (such as venetian blinds and casters) and with the presence of the artist’s hand, Nosy Clown – Fungus Powered exemplifies Yang’s unique visual vocabulary, her playful sense of humor, and her acuity in combining disparate materials to transformative ends. 

Tara Donovan transforms everyday materials into formally elegant sculptures, installations, and works on paper. She has made works from massive accumulations of pins, straws, toothpicks, tarpaper, tape, buttons, paper plates, and pencils. The means by which Donovan manipulates these objects are often simple—ripping, stacking, twisting, piling, cutting, grouping—yet the results are spectacular. The artist begins by testing and experimenting with a given material, seeking to remain true to its inherent properties while pushing its capacities. As Donovan has said, “Every new material comes with a specific repetitive action that builds the work.” Colored buttons form rippling towers that recall sea coral, or three million cups are stacked to form an undulating topographic map. When viewers discover what Donovan’s works are made of, they are surprised and delighted by how something so familiar and ordinary can become so unexpected and new.

Untitled (Pins), made of many thousands of straight pins, is a perfect cube reminiscent of the work of minimalists like Donald Judd. Rather than following the minimalist strategy of industrial fabrication, however, Donovan herself poured and pressed the pins into a four-sided square mold. When she removed the sides, the pins created a cube shape bound together by nothing more than surface tension: rather than holding fabric in place, the pins hold only themselves. As in much of her work, light plays off the cube, making it glitter enticingly. For all its prickliness, it begs to be touched. Yet, unlike Carl Andre’s relatively indestructible floor pieces or Judd’s cubes, Untitled (Pins) is fragile, on the brink of falling apart at the slightest touch. Far from tragic, it betrays a sense of humor and humility.

When the ICA/Boston organized survey of Donovan’s work in 2008, this work particularly aroused the affection of viewers. Untitled (Pins) complements the ICA’s Cornelia Parker pieces, as both artists reanimate the overlooked and mundane to create works of striking beauty.

2014.15

For over seventy years, Louise Bourgeois created poignant, cathartic work that explores sexuality, the human form, and traumatic events from her childhood. She is well known for her powerful sculptural work in a variety of media, including marble, bronze, plaster, and fabric.

Janus Fleuri is an evocatively corporeal object made of sleekly polished bronze. Following a period in the late 1950s when Bourgeois withdrew from the art world, she began experimenting with organic and biomorphic forms. She made six versions of Janus in 1968—five in bronze and one in porcelain (which the ICA/Boston also owns)—and recast the motif in 1992. Each piece in this series is delicately suspended by a single wire and is free to spin on its axis. Other hanging sculptures by Bourgeois from this era include the phallic Fillette, 1968, with which Bourgeois posed for a famous photographic portrait by Robert Mapplethorpe of 1982.

The title references the Roman god Janus, who was the god of gates, doorways, and beginnings and endings (indeed, the opening month of the year is named after him) and who is often portrayed as having two heads facing in opposite directions. A duality of meaning can often be found in Bourgeois’s work, with forms appearing at once male and female, abstract and representational, menacing and nurturing. In Janus Fleuri, we see mirrored forms drooping in opposite directions from a central point. Bourgeois blended male and female anatomy in many works throughout her career, including the phallic yet breastlike Germinal, 1967–92, also in the ICA collection.

The ICA has two versions of Janus Fleuri, one in porcelain and one in bronze. This sculpture, from one of her most significant series, plays an important role in the ICA’s holdings of the artist’s work.

2014.12

During her seventy-year career, Louise Bourgeois became an artist of wide influence and art-historical importance. Her charged work, a distinctive mix of abstraction and figuration, delves into childhood memories and the emotional struggles of everyday life. Working in wood, bronze, marble, steel, rubber, and fabric, she created powerful objects that reference the body, sexuality, trauma, and anxiety.

Among the motifs that appear most regularly in her work are breasts and penises. This imagery is often discussed from an autobiographical standpoint, as standing in for Bourgeois’s mother and father, with whom she had complicated relationships. Her use of the motifs can also be related to human sexuality more generally. Additionally, her objects have been compared to ancient religious icons. In Germinal, a small and domed sculpture in white marble, Bourgeois collapses the imagery of the breast and the penis. According to Bourgeois, as quoted in Thomas McEvilley’s Sculpture in the Age of Doubt, “Sometimes I am totally concerned with female shapes—clusters of breasts like clouds—but I often merge the imagery—phallic breasts, male and female, active and passive.” The “phallic breast” has an early precedent in sculptures and depictions of the goddess Rati in Bali, whose long breasts jut forward as though erect. Germinal stands as an archetypal example of Bourgeois’s manipulations and combinations of male and female sexual markers.

As part of a group of works by Bourgeois owned by the ICA, Germinal augments the museum’s collection of sculpture by significant female artists.

2014.11

Louise Bourgeois was one of the most influential artists of the last century. In her distinctive mix of abstraction and figuration, she delved into childhood memories and the struggles of everyday life. Using a variety of materials—wood, bronze, marble, steel, rubber, and fabric—she crafted evocative and personally cathartic objects that reference the body, sexuality, family, trauma, and anxiety.

Beginning in the mid-1990s, Bourgeois repurposed found fabric as the material for a number of sculptures. In part, this stemmed from necessity—sewing was a technique she could still manage as an elderly artist. Stitching with bits of her old clothing, sheets, or towels, Bourgeois created small figures that convey strong emotions. Arched Figure No.1 is made from pantyhose-like fabric stretched over chicken wire. This crudely stitched female form could be in a state of sexual ecstasy or perhaps, conversely, excruciating pain. Bourgeois describes this arched form, which appears in many of her works, as “the arch of hysteria, pleasure, and pain … merged in a state of happiness.” Placed in a vitrine of the artist’s design, Arched Figure No. 1 calls to mind anthropological or historical museum display. Like a contemporary version of an ancient fertility figure, the object is preserved and protected for future contemplation.

Arched Figure No. 1 demonstrates the artist’s characteristic interest in subjects such as the body, sexuality, and androgyny. The piece was featured in the ICA/Boston’s 2007 exhibition Bourgeois in Boston.

2014.10