Sculptor Wang Keping uses wood to tell astonishing stories

For over 30 years sculptor Wang Keping has been changing the face of contemporary art with works that are a rare combination of sensuality, eroticism and yearning.

Sculptor Wang Keping is a founding member of the Chinese contemporary art group The Stars, better known in Chinese as Xing Xing. The first exhibition of work by artists from The Stars was held outside the China Art Gallery in 1979. Wang’s sculpture Silence was so unique that the New York Times ran a story about it on their front page.

In 1984, Wang Ke Ping immigrated to France with his French wife and focused on wood carving, creating a unique aesthetic for the genre. In 1999, he joined other world-class sculptors at an exhibition of work on the Avenue Champs-Elysées in Paris. Since then his sculptures have been avidly collected and his work is featured in Hong Kong by the Chancery Lane gallery.

Wang Keping’s work is full of uneven curves and unique forms that insinuate themselves into memory and influence aesthetic perception in ways that are profound and enduring. Wang’s sculptures don’t have facial features or bodily details, but they enchant. Wang Keping’s Madame Butterfly, made from the cross section of a tree trunk could be a dancing geisha, face slightly turned, speaking her lines to the audience. She could also be a girl from ancient China, just turned 15, who is finally able to have her hair tressed as a sign of maturity.

Read | Wang’s Words

“I am not trying to create women out of the wood, but the simple forms of women,” he says. “There are no noses, or eyes, but one can tell it is a woman’s head. By catching the spirit, things can be alike.” Wang Keping is an admirer or artists such as Qi Baishi, Wu Changshuo and Bada Shanren, whose spirit could be detected in their work.

“Bada’s birds have brought out his state of mind, while Qi Baishi revealed his masterly technique, strong will and personality through trivial details like shrimps, chickens and Chinese cabbage. Good works are invariably simple and spontaneous. And what I aim to achieve is simplicity and singularity.”

Wang Keping ridicules art that is devoted to likeness and realism. “A lot of oil paintings are meticulously made by single brush strokes,” which he says is commerce, not art, before making a trademark joke. Although being a lover of Chinese culture and aesthetics, Wang insists that he does not create ‘Chinese art.’ “I am a Chinese artist,” he says.
“But I don’t make Chinese art, nor contemporary art. One’s art belongs to one’s nation, but the characteristics of the nation’s art don’t necessarily belong to an individual work. Chinese artists who make Chinese art are inferior. The good ones make their own art.”

Before Wang Keping become a sculptor, at the age of 30, he had been a screenwriter for 10 years, and had a close relationship with avant-garde poets such as Beidao and Mangke. He also starred in the TV series Jinding Mountain.

To Wang Keping, wood is like a human being, having tender parts, hard parts, solid parts and fragile parts but he differs from most traditional Chinese wood carving masters who tended to be in love with either extravagant red sandalwood, ivory like boxwood or beautifully grained Huanghuali rosewood. Wang has no preference on the variety of the wood but rather seeks out raw materials with character.

He likes joints, knobs, knots, and other small protuberances or imperfections because the joints are the strongest part of a tree and the peculiar shapes they form bring him infinite inspiration. In France, he usually asks gardeners and foresters for help, “I drive to look for wood, not knowing what I will bring home. Maybe there is nothing at the end of the day, or maybe there is so much that it cannot all be brought back. Everyday is like a gamble.”

…More stories like this are available in Quintessentially Asia.