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CUI FEI Tracing the Origin

Cui Fei, "Manuscript of Nature VIII," 2010. Thorns on panels. Triptych, 57 x 33" each. Photo: David Broda.

New York
Chambers Fine Art
April 25 – June 7, 2013

The latest show at Chambers Fine Arts features the work of Chinese artist Cui Fei. Born in Jinan, Fei’s education includes stints at both the China Academy of Fine Arts and Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where she received her MFA. A New Yorker now for the last decade, Fei has worked continuously over the years on three separate but related series: Calendar, Manuscript of Nature, and Tracing the Origin. Each stems from the central conceit of Fei’s work. As she ruminates in her artist statement, Fei seeks the “underlying essence of our lives [...] which cannot be altered by social, political, cultural, or geographic conditions.” She turns towards nature, “consistent and ordered,” to provide such sought-after stability. The various series relate to different aspects of the natural world, though each sees Fei playing with the visual idiom of Chinese calligraphy as a method of ordering her materials. Works from the Manuscript of Nature and Tracing the Origin sequences are on display at Chambers, the latter giving the show its name.

Adjacent to the entrance, the first of two rooms leads the exhibition with Manuscript of Nature V_004 (2012). Like the other efforts in this series, the artist coils twigs and tendrils around thin bits of stick that are pinned to the wall like specimens. The lilting twists of organic matter simulate Chinese running script, a particularly flowing style of calligraphy. Alongside this work are a number of photograms, a camera-less form of photographic imagery in which objects are placed directly on photosensitive paper and exposed, leaving a shadow image. The shadows belong to the characters ofthe Tracing the Origin series, itself already a doubling as Fei bends copper and speaker wire into approximations of Manuscript’s natural forms. With those shapes reduced to a black-and-white, two-dimensional plane, however, the photograms’s resemblance to standard calligraphy seems predictable and somewhat boring.

Cui Fei, "Tracing the Origin XV_001," 2013. Copper wires, pins. 36 x 48". Courtesy of the artist and Chambers Fine Art.

The work that formed the photograms is more interesting. Shown in Chambers’s cavernous main room, the Tracing the Origin pieces are split between large-scale works pinioned directly to the wall, and smaller ones set within frames. The iridescent threads of metal give them a flashy ornateness, offset by frayed ends jutting out here and there. An older Manuscript of Nature work rounds out the room. Composed of vertical lines of angular thorns, its geometry poses a marked difference with the running script of the more recent entries.

One leaves Chambers impressed by Fei’s exacting level of control, though at times the finesse becomes overly fussy. The tendrils and twigs’s cursive-like lines are the show’s most pleasurable moment, retaining the uncertain sense that they may unravel at any moment. But the failure of the images projected by the photograms demonstrates a larger problem with Fei’s project. Ignoring the quandaries of searching for an ‘essence,’ Fei falls hard for the old anthropocentric fantasy that there’s a manuscript in nature, simply waiting to be read. It’s a rather specious form of projection that’s belied by how fastidiously composed her pieces are, and that seems to have trapped Fei in a typographic metaphor. While it’s certainly unique that she’s remained steadfast to the larger project encapsulating her different series of work for such a long time, that kind of lengthy commitment calls all the more for a reappraisal of its basis.

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The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2013

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