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An Te Liu: Modernizing the Modern

Gardiner Museum, Toronto September 7 to November 11, 2013

Leave it to artist An Te Liu to return us to Modernism and its continuing allure for contemporary culture. In his exhibition “MONO NO MA” at the Gardiner Museum, Liu goes undercover as a faux modernist to present a series of sculptures that resemble the carved, totemic abstracts produced by artists like Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and Isamu Noguchi in the middle decades of the 20th century. Liu’s sleek, plinth-seated works capture the biomorphic curves and hollows that once spoke to gestalt perception and tactile memory in a Modernist art that looked to extend figurative sculpture into the conflicted psychic terrain of mass-culture reality.

From our current vantage point, that earlier art can look the epitome of Modernism, a high-water mark, even. In reproduction (our primary engagement with it), it might also register as a bit innocent—more a stylistic gesture than a seeking state of mind. Liu, however, makes it dangerous again. He re-materializes the look of the Modern to take it apart and pull its poised materiality into a 21st-century world of disorientation.

In front of us Liu puts not carving, but casts. These are assembled from a ceramic slip-cast process (think of the method behind those hollow chocolate Easter bunnies) where the original form models are found pieces of Styrofoam packing materials that protect electronic goods, and other consumer products, in transit. In other words, in Liu’s sculptures, we are looking, for instance, at the Styrofoam-filled negative space between a new Apple iMac and its cardboard shipping box.

That Liu can tear off a corner of such packing material, cast it, join it with other casts, and make it look like a Modernist homage to the ancient Winged Victory of Samothrace is a testament to the sliding simultaneities of time and history that now shape our perceptions of art (and everything else). It is also a testament to the associative inventiveness that Liu brings to this project. “MONO NO MA” is a conjuror’s trick of a show. It has us hunting down the how and what of objects that are not as they seem. It leaves us firm on the ground, surrounded by a floating glamour of appearances. Welcome to Modernism a hundred years on.

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