Ming Fay: Beyond Nature
On ViewSapar Contemporary
April 18 – June 1, 2019
Generally speaking, artistic forms read differently in China than they do in most Western countries. This is primarily true of representational forms, which tend to have symbolic content. In the case of Ming Fay, this would include his precision, hand-made simulations of extra-large natural objects shown at Sapar Contemporary in TriBeCa. This is an exemplary exhibition for New York in which the content is not merely unusual, but the heightened awareness of these natural forms offers a focus of awareness that, for many, is removed from contemporary urban culture.
Ming Fay was not always a representational sculptor. Upon his arrival in the United States in 1961, he began studying art at the Columbus College of Art and Design in Ohio. After transferring to the Kansas City Art Institute, where he received a BFA, Ming’s interest in abstract form followed him through his MFA years at the University of California, Santa Barbara. While abstract art in the Western sense (i.e., Modernist) was less known in China at the time Ming left Shanghai, it was a dominant form of inquiry during the Post-Minimal years of the late ’60s and early ’70s in New York. But it was not until the early ’80s—more than a decade later—that Ming settled in New York where he began producing an extraordinary variety of eatable plant life, largely inspired by his regular visits to the markets in Chinatown.
Curated by Alexandra Chang, Ming Fay: Beyond Nature at Sapar consists of a wide variety of installations involving fruits and plants, skulls and bones, seashells and spirals, all of which are considerably larger than the original forms. As a space for Ming’s sculptures, the gallery attempts to support these forms in terms of their relationships to one another. For example, White Bird Skull (1992), constructed out of steel, epoxy, gauze, paint, and paper pulp, might be compared with two large wishbones propped against the wall off to the side.
Another long wall that runs across the right side of the gallery heralds such works as Maple Seed (1982), Shell of Mussel (1984), Buckeye Seed (1985), and Half Walnut Shell (1986), again offering detailed comparisons with one another, especially given—in some cases—their gargantuan size. A third wall to the rear supports a selection of intricate, vibrantly colored floral works, constructed in wire, paper pulp, paint, and resin, from Ming’s series of “Money Trees” (begun in 2015), a tradition often found in China in which actual coins are embedded within the paper pulp.
In addition, there are two floor installations where large-scale representations of nature are grouped together, the most effective being an ensemble of large-scale vegetables, including Sweet Italian Chili Pepper (1981), measuring 32 inches long. One could interpret these works many ways, including conjuring folk symbolism related to prosperity and longevity. But one might also read into these works contemporary ecological and contextual issues, such as the evidence of alteration and depletion of natural plant life as a food source.
One final feature in the exhibition worth mentioning are the three Patina Bronze figures that stand alongside each other on separate pedestals. These are anthropomorphic representations of folk gods in China called the Sanxing (three stars), dating back to the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). They are intended to symbolize three preeminent qualities for every Chinese household, which include prosperity (Fu), status (Lu), and longevity (Shou). In Ming’s interpretation, each of the figures is engaged in practicing Tai Chi with highly poised bodies and carefully outstretched arms that reveal a quality of dance intertwined with the martial arts. Resemblant of the thinly textured figures of Alberto Giacometti, Ming’s versions are separately titled: Grasping the Bird’s Tail, Brush Knee, and Repulse Monkey (all 2014). These figurative works suggest a way of being in the everyday world by retaining Confucian values such as hope, calm, and generosity. These principles are personified in a manner that represents Ming’s relaxed focus on how to remain in touch with living one’s life despite the hemisphere where the artist has chosen to reside.