At once rigidly skeletal and imbued with rhythmic movement, the porcelain sculptures that comprise Shiyuan Xu’s Growth series are intricate recreations of single-celled organisms, molecules, and other micro lifeforms. The Chinese artist hand-builds delicate ceramic works of three-dimensional webbing that swell and surges into amorphous shapes mimicking a range of living creatures. Stretching up to two feet, the enlarged, abstract sculptures incorporate both the universal nature of evolution and change, while directly tying to Xu’s background. “My attempt of using the classical Chinese blue and white and celadon color palette in a contemporary way reflects my own narratives, life experience, and cultural heritage” she shares, explaining further:
The regular and irregular structures and layers of my piece blend in with the memory of my sensations and personal experience. The repetitive and labor-intensive process seems to be a therapy to ease my anxiety and sense of uncertainty while facing constant challenges in the intersections of two cultures.
To create each piece, Xu undertakes a laborious process that involves applying a heavy glaze and then using a knife to scratch the edges away. The removal leaves a line of raw clay coursing through the middle of each segment, and works like “Blue Vein #4” and “Hybrid #1” emphasize that central element with color. “After the piece is fired, I repeat the same process many times, to spray, scrape, and fire again, until the surface texture is accumulating to a very obvious degree,” she tells Colossal, noting that she sometimes replicates these steps ten times—check out the artist’s Instagram for a detailed look at her process.
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Along with delicate flowers in porcelain, Berlin-based artist Angelika Arendt applies minuscule orbs, dots, and thin, curved lines to her meticulously textured sculptures. Amorphous in shape but distinct in the organic matter they evoke, her intricate works often mimic processes found in nature, including plant growth and cells as they swell and burst into new life. Some pieces appear mid-movement, like expanding molecules, and others drip or peel to reveal fields thick with foliage and other tactile elements.
In addition to sculpture, Arendt also creates detailed botanical drawings, and both are on view through May 8 at Berlin’s C&K Gallery, where she’s represented. Her pieces will also be included in a group exhibition at Clemens Härle brewery in Leutkirch starting in April, and you can explore more of her dense works on Instagram.
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The wide, reddish-brown fungi known as lingzhi, or reishi, has long been revered as the mushroom of immortality, said to grant eternal life to anyone who consumes one of its spores. This ancient belief founds some Chinese legends and is also a mainstay of Xiaojing Yan’s practice. Based in Toronto, the artist has created a body of work that’s broad in medium and subject matter, ranging from small sculptures installed in circular formations to bulbous paper lanterns with rotating parts. Each piece, though, hearkens back to Yan’s experience as a first-generation Chinese-Canadian and her interest in the way the formidable power of nature continually intersects with culture, art, and lore.
Displayed in precise patterns, both Yan’s 2014 work “Lingzhi” and 2020 installation “Fairy Ring” are comprised of bronze mushrooms finished with a turquoise patina. The texture is enhanced, the artist shares, to mimic concentric tree rings and prompt questions of aging and time. “I arranged them onto the wall in the way that bracket mushrooms would grow in steps in nature,” she writes. “Against the white wall, these hoary objects appear to float in space. Bronze is often associated with monuments, images of power, or eternity and creates tension with lingzhi’s delicate nature and mythology.” In conjunction with immortalizing the fungi in alloy, Yan also uses the actual spongy spores in other pieces, including in coating busts and sculptures with the fleshy growths.
Similarly focused on symbols from nature, Yan’s more animalistic works involve gilded cicada exoskeletons suspended as a winding staircase and an animated series of cocoon-like sculptures that twirl in a circular motion. “Tiger’s Embrace,” a recently carved wooden sculpture, nests alternating depictions of the cat and a human figure in diminishing forms. Commissioned by the Royal Ontario Museum where it’s on display through January 2023, the piece celebrates the Year of the Tiger and is the first in a series of all twelve signs in the Chinese zodiac. The hybrid work, which blurs the distinction between people and animals, “is also based on the Chinese custom of dressing children in tiger hats for good luck and protection,” she says. “The warrior’s lion skin hat turning into a cute baby’s tiger hat can’t stop me from pondering over self-transformation and adaptation.”
Yan has exhibitions slated for Paris, Shenzhen, Shanghai, and Nevada in the coming months, and she is currently working on a project supported by the Canada Council for the Arts. Explore a larger portfolio of folklore-infused pieces on her site and Instagram.
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In Dorothy Cross’s “Blue Dive,” a pair of feet with curled, spread toes breach a rugged fragment of vibrant stone streaked with white veins. The sculpture casts the Connemara-based Cork-born artist’s own extremities into a block of rare Brazilian sodalite, a nod to the fleeting nature of human time in comparison to the longevity and enduring qualities of Earth’s resources.
The rich, stone carving is just one anatomical piece in Cross’s solo exhibition titled Damascus Rose, which is open through April 14 at London’s Frith Street Gallery. From a sleek, tiled walkway to a pillow bearing a single ear, many of the sculptures on view are chiseled into the red-hued titular stone and were born out of the artist’s experience in Carrara, Italy, a region known for its marble.
Like her broader oeuvre, these new pieces consider the body’s relationship to time. Cross’s chronology is lengthy, spanning from the biblical stories of St. Paul to the current crises in Syria that confront “the horror of human evacuation and the thwarted attempts by thousands forced to migrate across oceans to supposedly safer lands,” a statement says. Other works like the uncanny “Red Baby” are more personal and are modeled after the artist’s childhood pillow, portraying an ear protruding from the center where an impression might otherwise be.
Earlier projects fall under similar themes of change and subsequent loss, including a 2019 sculpture in which a small shark emerges from a white marble flooring. The sprawling piece links the marine animal’s 400-million year lineage to the more recent development of the stone and addresses the threat of over-fishing and finning to the current population.
Because of its size, “Red Erratic,” the imposing block topped with multiple pairs of overlapping feet, is unable to be displayed in Frith Street Gallery and instead will be on view during the next year at Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens in Cornwall. Cross’s site includes a vast archive of her works across mediums, and it’s worth taking a look at her Instagram to view the carving process.
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Digital models of bacteria and viruses are essential for scientists communicating vital health information to the broader public. Paired with news articles and government guidelines, the depictions offer powerful visuals for otherwise invisible harms, and although accurate in shape and structure, many renderings often feature colors chosen at the artist’s discretion—this includes the now-infamous depiction of the red, spiked SARS-CoV-2, which was named a Beazley Design of the Year.
Back in 2004, artist Luke Jerram began questioning the impact of this creative license, asking whether people believed that microbes are inherently vibrant and how exactly viewers are supposed to tell which renderings feature accurate colors and which are alterations. This interest sparked his ongoing Glass Microbiology project, which creates models of viruses like Zika, smallpox, and HIV as clear sculptures.
Created approximately 1 million times larger than the actual cells, Jerram’s works highlight the intricate and unique structures without obscuring a viewer’s impression based on color. He collaborates with virologists from the University of Bristol to ensure the form’s accuracy before being glassblowers Kim George, Brian Jones, and Norman Veitch help mold the delicate shapes, starting with the coiled nucleic acid at the center and later the outer proteins. Together, they’ve created dozens of models so far, including the long, worm-like ebola and a T4 bacteriophage with a rectangular head and multiple legs.
“Of course, by making it in glass, you create something that’s incredibly beautiful. There’s a tension there, between the beauty of the object and what it represents,” the U.K.-based artist said in an interview. “By making the invisible visible, we’re able to feel like we have a better sense of control over it.”
Jerram’s microbes are on view in two exhibitions this month: as part of Hope from Chaos: Pandemic Reflections at the ArtScience Museum in Singapore and at Henry Moore Institute’s A State of Matter. Explore the vast collection and dive into the science behind the works on the Glass Microbiology site.
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Amanda Cobbett suspends a singular moment in the fleeting lives of fungi by stitching their likeness in thread. The textile artist photographs and gathers specimens that she brings back to her Surrey Hills-based studio, where she finds fibers to match pale green lichens and golden chanterelles. Using a free-motion embroidery technique on a sewing machine, she then stitches multiple layers onto a piece of dissolvable fabric that, once the organism is complete, is washed away to leave just the mushroom or mossy bark intact. As a scroll through her Instagram reveals, the resulting sculptures are so realistic in color, shape, and size that it’s difficult to distinguish the artist’s iterations from their counterparts.
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