Big Art. Maybe it is the soaring white box arts institutional spaces and public venues or just the need for more spectacle, but everywhere I look I see big art. This has been a challenge for me as a ceramic sculptor since clay is hard to scale – it cracks, kilns limit size and it’s not the easiest material to work into installations. So when my gallerist Leah Poller started showing me high-quality bronze work she was doing in China, I paid attention.
I had done bronze work before here in NY and Connecticut but I was struck by how the old guard kept retiring and there wasn’t much new guard taking their places. While almost everything else we buy has had labor squeezed out of it, bronze casting still takes a lot of labor so it is expensive and I found after paying foundry costs I simply couldn’t price my works where they would sell. So I had all but given it up for the past 5 years.
With the promise of good quality work and low prices I decided to dip a toe back in and recently spent a few days at TQ Art Foundry, the largest art foundry in China and possibly the world. 700 employees and the ability to cast single pour lost wax bronze pieces up to 6 meters high.
I view this foundry relationship almost as if it were a new tool or medium: If I can work cost-effectively in cast metal I could make different kinds of work, open up new creative avenues, new places to show and sell my work. It’s allowing me to take my same modeling skills and artistic vision and let it out of the box. It’s putting me on a fairer footing with some of the marquis contemporary artists whose unlimited budgets or developing country bases allow them to make spectacular work with intensive amounts of skilled assistance.
So far I am just making a handful of casts of an old piece (Gandhi and Gandhi Watching CNN) which continues to draw interest, but while there I started to understand that I could scale up some of my large Head sculptures into cast metal and have them work in outdoor, all-climate installations at sizes I simply cannot achieve in clay. And discovering new metals and new patinas means I can get non-traditional looks that match the mood and feeling I am trying to get in my pieces. And I can build the original head on-site in China at the studio with their assistance, meaning I don’t have to deal with making and shipping a mold that size either. I am sure that after these large heads I will come up with even more new works that will now make sense.
Make no mistake, this is pioneering and still very much a work in process. TQ barely has a website and although a steady stream of foreign sculptors have done work there over the years (and they have a few lovely English-speaking staff) this is going halfway around the world to stay in an industrial park in a city in central China that few have ever heard of and fewer still have visited. You work, eat and sleep onsite, in a guesthouse alongside the worker dormitories and foundry buildings, and get seriously authentic Chinese food at every meal, sometimes washed down with fiery draughts of Chinese rum during bouts of toasts with the foundry’s owners and senior managers.
I thought it was important to document this, that sometimes progressing as an artist--growing the scope and vision of your work-- requires a step-change in how you work, requires going halfway around the world to work in a strange place in a strange language. Maybe if I were more commercially successful I could do all this with the good folks at Polich-Tallix, an easy drive from my home, where rock stars like Ursula von Rydingsvard and Martin Puryear cast their work but economics (prices about half of US prices) along with a certain sense of adventure has taken me on this new path. So far it's been fun and empowering!