“Divergent: Kite” falls from the ceiling like a secret, quietly suspended in one of Zone one contemporary gallery’s private alcoves. Hung by a wire, the coral-colored sculpture — a geometric jumble of frolicking curlicue shapes formed with a glossy, plastic-like resin — comes to rest a mere whisper above the ground.
Careful spotlighting around the piece creates an unmistakable new shape on the flat, reflective surface attached to the floor just beneath it — the imperial outline of a kite.
“It’s because of the shadow that this piece is called ‘Divergent: Kite,'” affirms artist Chin-Chin Tan, patiently explaining her methods: “The form itself is not a kite, but the shadow looks like a kite. The structure and the flat piece underneath carry a very close relationship to each other. [When] I formed this structure, I looked at the lighting. … The distance between the [sculpture] and this flat piece on the floor has to be very close, but yet not touching. It is very complicated,” she admits.
That sense of tricky simplicity is the calling card of Couplet, a new exhibit at Zone one contemporary that features the three-dimensional works of Tan and Joseph Plitt, both recent graduates of New York City’s prestigious Parsons School of Design. Newly settled in Asheville, the two have a closer relationship than most people sharing gallery space: Both artists, however, insist that their partnership outside of the art world doesn’t affect the individuality of their work.
“He helps me drill holes,” Tan quips, continuing thoughtfully, “We’ve worked together in the same studio for only, maybe, a year. Living in the same house, and having the studio in the same location, we might [unconsciously] influence each other, but if we thought about it, I don’t think we would.”
“We still talk about our concepts,” puts in Plitt. “We usually don’t talk about [our projects] in the very beginning, before we start, but sometimes we’ll talk about [them] later on.”
Tan, a Singapore native, is already a well-known artist in Asia and Europe. Her pre-Parsons endeavors took the form of intensely detailed, mixed-media collages that celebrated her culture’s diversity.
“When I became a full-time painter, I was always interested in mixing things,” she relates. “I focused on what we have in my country. I’m interested in [exploring] cultural [themes], because Singapore is so very rich. We have a lot of different races, so that’s why you’ll see a lot of Indian [influence] in the [works], a mix of Asian cultures.”
But at Parsons, students are required to trim their art to its absolute essence. In her newer pieces, Tan adopts a single motif from her earlier work — a sharp-edged curly pattern prevalent in the ornate window carvings of older Chinese homes — and shepherds it lovingly into new territory. The form itself is unvarying, she points out (“I focused on one design, present[ing] it in a different way, with individual meanings in it”) — a remarkable fact, given the pattern’s myriad sculptural incarnations. In “Divergent: Spiral,” for instance, the curls wheel themselves into the form of a radiant golden sun, while the lush “Housestyle 168” is a three-dimensional collage whose gypsy-hued fabrics recall Tan’s earlier work.
“Divergent: Posture 1” protrudes completely from the wall, the omnipresent curls amassed in a deceptively fragile-looking tangle. Made from the same liquid plastic used in much of Tan’s work, the sculpture retains a silky patina:
“It looks soft, but when you touch it, it’s very hard,” she notes. Scrutinizing the spirited piece, which seems almost to quiver upon close inspection, she observes with a laugh, “It looks like it’s going to fall. But it’s not … hopefully.”
Plitt’s pieces express a similar duplicity. His tiny matchbox sculptures — an 11-strong battalion that includes such winsome constructions as the soldierly “Transformer” and “Long Ears,” a seemingly drunken rabbit — exhibit a level of intricacy quite at odds with their flimsy genetic material.
“These were done while I was in school, when I was going through a lot of personal searching, figuring out what I wanted to do,” he recalls. “At first, I started making these little sketches on matchbooks when I was lying in bed, before I went to sleep. Pretty soon, I started to glue things to them, and they started to become sculptures. I think I unconsciously chose these types of materials because they didn’t seem very important, and I could kind of experiment, open up possibilities that weren’t necessarily known to me in terms of making sculpture. Pretty soon after that, I started on making machine-[driven] things … small machines at first, [that] got bigger as my confidence grew.”
The starkly impressive “Four Choices” is Plitt’s largest exhibited work, a round, transparent dais continually circled by a motorized bar. Though it immediately recalls a clock, its aim is not to record time, but reflect it. “Basically, I came up with the idea of making sort of an image of the world,” Plitt explains. “This bar represents a certain kind of recurring tension that happens in the world, that we all have to deal with, and the mirror is where you see yourself in the world.”
The artist takes pains to ensure that his pieces are exhibited to best advantage. Many of them are lit from within; “Exit-Extension” is a rosy, spike-encrusted vase that Plitt further illuminated by painting the entire room in which it sits black. But in the actual forming of his work, Plitt often forsakes premeditation for more organic inspiration. In “Headache,” for example (a mixed-media piece on display in the gallery’s window), a wooden ball makes nervous revolutions inside a lighted, mushroom-shaped base — but “it’s not a perfect ball,” remarks the artist, who says his frequent migraines inspired the sculpture.
“Even though I use rulers and try to be accurate, I tend to let that go a little bit and let there be some kind of hand touch [to the works], a handmade type of look,” he elaborates.
Balance, it seems, is both artists’ ultimate design. Notes Tan: “[Our pieces] can go very well together. Part of it is because of the medium we [both] use, based on resins. And yet it’s not difficult for people to tell, when they really look at it, that the work is from two different artists. When the works are together in the gallery, there is a balance, and I think that is the most important thing to have.”