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Interview with New York-based sculptor Jiannan Wu

Last Updated on 2021/10/25

Jiannan Wu New York-based sculptor specializing in figurative sculpture 

Jiannan Wu, born in 1990 in Dalian, China, is a young artist specializing in sculpture with realism. He is an Elected Member of the American National Sculpture Society, a member of the American Medallic Sculpture Association, and a founder of the Art American China Project. Jiannan Wu received his BFA Degree in Sculpture from the China Academy of Art and his MFA Degree in Sculpture from the New York Academy of Art. Through formats of relief and semi-relief, Jiannan Wu presents the theme of contemporary urban life realistically and narratively. He was selected for Terra Foundation Residency in Giverny France 2015 and ABC Stone Carrara Merit Award Residency in Italy 2016. Jiannan Wu is also the winner of the MFA National Competition, winner of the Compleat Sculptor Award 2016, and the 2017 Dexter Jones Award presented by the American National Sculpture Society. He successfully held his solo exhibition in New York in 2018. Jiannan Wu is the recipient of the Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation grant. His works and artistic achievements have been published in The New York Times, The China Press, People’s Daily China, The Paper, Hi-Fructose Magazine, T(here) Magazine, Artrepreneur, etc. 

Official site | Instagram

How and when did you decide to choose sculpture as your form of creative expression? Why did you decide to become an artist?

The choice of becoming a sculptor is serendipity. I started to draw and paint when I was only 4 years old. Upon entering the art university, I chose sculpting as my concentration as I’m fond of model kits and toys. In the beginning, I didn’t know much about sculpting. Later on, I realized that the action figures and film special effect industries are really booming in the US, so when I graduated from the China Academy of Art I decided to come to the US to pursue further education and training in sculpting. The ultimate goal was to enter into the film industry at that time. Serendipitously, during my graduate study at the New York Academy of Art, my sculptures received recognition from the art industry. Then offers of exhibitions from galleries and interviews from the media followed. It was so natural for me to begin my professional art career as a sculptor after graduation. In retrospect, I didn’t have a strong desire to be an artist since I was a child, and chance played a large part in it. However, the desire has grown stronger in recent years. 

 Who influenced you as a sculptor? Can you tell us the sculptures that impressed you the most?

I’m a fan of Raymond Mason’s sculptures, which have certain helplessness and falseness in the light banter. Robert Taplin, my teacher in NYAA, also had a big influence on me. As for the specific works, I appreciate Wisdom of Entang Wiharso, Us No 2 of Cai Lei, and A Tragedy in the North: Winter, Rain, and Tears of Raymond Mason. 

In his sculptures, he tries to express his love for life and his faith in humanity by conveying the interest and vitality of people’s daily life in a humorous and realistic style.

Where do you find your inspiration? What do you want to tell with your pieces of art?

Most inspirations for my creation come from contemporary daily life. My art prominently features the theme of people’s daily life in a narrative way. Selfie Series is about the selfie phenomenon among the young generation, Subway Series presents different subway scenes in the New York metropolitan area, and the current ongoing Country Love series restores the country life in Northeast of China. In my sculptures, I try to express my love for life and my faith in humanity by conveying the interest and vitality of people’s daily life in a humorous and realistic style. I consider myself a storyteller, solidifying an ongoing segment of the story scene into tableaux and inserting corresponding interest and thinking into it. By putting “people” under my spotlight, I focus on the shaping of each character’s personality and details. Each scene in the work is a stage, and each character has his own audiences and the world.

How long does it take to make a sculpture project?

Currently, I’m mainly working on some small-sized works and each piece usually takes about 40 days to complete. In the past, I had created a large piece around 5 feet in height which took about 8 months to complete.

Your art focuses on details, that can be physically touched. What do the materials represent to you? What about the sense of touch?

The material represents a certain period of time in the past or memory of mine. Unlike paintings, the sculpture takes a longer time to create and its material has experienced many changes in form and state in the process of creation because of my participation: growing from nothing and changing from soft to hard, thick to thin, cold to warm, and so on. Therefore, the whole evolution process of the materials in a piece of work actually corresponds to the state of my life at that time, which can be regarded as another record. I like the tangible touch, which makes me feel secure and safe. This is also part of the reason why I have been fond of model kits and toys since childhood and have chosen sculpture as my specialization. Maybe it has to do with possessiveness.

Are there any materials do you prefer to use to create your artwork and why? How do you choose them?

I used to apply water-based clay. But I thought that many details would be lost in the molding and casting process, so I began to look for new materials. Then the polymer clay came to my eyes, which is convenient and can be baked directly, eliminating the step of molding and casting. I bought a lot of brands and categories at the start. I tested the hand feeling, hardness, baking time, and other features of each style, and finally chose the brand Super Sculpey as the most suitable one for me. In addition, I also use a lot of tin foil and iron wire to make the inner armature of the sculpture.

How does the idea of the series of color reliefs “Country Love” came about?

The “Country Love” series I am currently creating comes from some of my feelings and memories of my early life in northeast China. Due to the special geographical features and history, northeast China has its unique landscape and cultural phenomena. Its plain, passionate, and humorous lifestyle, customs, and language are beyond the region and popular in the whole nation. I was born and grew up in northeast China, so I was immersed in its unique culture since my childhood. I was especially influenced by some performing arts such as sketch comedy and TV shows with northeast characteristics. Thus, In this series of sculptures, I present the “people” and “objects” in contemporary rural China from different angles to show the country culture in northeast China, especially the changes and new social relations out of the collision between foreign pop culture and the local traditional customs, and the anxiety about the localism and identity since the 1990s.

He consider himself a storyteller, solidifying an ongoing segment of the story scene into tableaux and inserting corresponding interest and thinking into it

What about the idea behind the “Selfie Series”?

Selfies have become a popular and near-universal phenomenon in contemporary society, especially among younger generations. Individuals often pose with gestures and facial expressions that they think would be perfect before the camera, and after snapping a picture, they retouch and filter before posting on social media. Some even go further, either paying a hefty price tag or ruining the environment to make the perfect background in their photos. Uniting these people is a desire to portray an ideal life to the internet public; however, most of these selfies are not accurate portrayals of the real-life that these young people live day to day. They are a false image, and to some degree reflect the dearth of both face-to-face interactions and confidence in this generation. They follow blindly, escape from the self, and pursue the “collective self”.

By using a fisheye lens on original selfie photographs to exaggerate each figure’s expressions and bodily gestures, this collection subverts the idealized selves as the individuals had originally intended. Contrary to their original desires, the individuals are instead uglified to a certain extent, producing a strong visual impact with an ironic and comedic effect. 

An exhibition and auction featuring his sculptures and from his students, benefiting China Charities Aid Foundation For Children, was on view on December 18th at Whittle School, Shenzhen, China. More than ¥800000 was raised by selling more than 15 pieces of artwork.

Can you tell us about your first time in The States? Did you face experience that makes you want to communicate different themes through your artwork?

Compared with the “other world” feeling of a previous generation of Chinese when they first came to the United States, our generation now feels maybe only “another air”. Because we were originally brought up under the influence of western pop culture, there is no big culture shock. Excitement still occurred, of course, especially the first time I went to the Met, Whitney Museum, and other museums to see the masterpieces I saw in books as a child. 

The inspiration for starting the subway series actually comes from the excitement of a new environment and new culture. I came to New York from China to study in 2014, and the completely different cultural atmosphere made me surprised and excited. I was shocked by the mess when I took the New York subway for the first time, then it became more and more interesting to me through my daily encounters with it. The New York Subway is like a miniature world, and also a microcosm of the city: passengers from various countries and ethnic backgrounds speaking a variety of languages, belonging to a variety of jobs and occupations, each carrying their own stories, step into a narrow train car. They come into the truest sense of contact with each other. They occupy the same space for but a brief moment, moving together before going their separate ways. After getting off the train, perhaps these people of a serendipitous encounter will never come together again; and perhaps those who have come together, again and again, sharing a commute along the same path, will become familiar strangers. Or perhaps with a fateful chance, they will break this estrangement and walk into each other’s lives. So I began to use the language of sculpture to present what I see as the raucous restlessness and the exuberant vitality of urban life. If I had never come to New York, I would never have touched on this theme.

Jiannan Wu is devoting himself to promoting the art and culture communication between America and China. He successfully curated two Sino-American art exhibitions in Beijing and Dalian in 2018. Jiannan Wu currently works and lives in New York City.

Recently The States went from pandemic to protests on the death of George Floyd. Is your creative mood affected and changed by this difficult time? What do you think about this issue of the struggle for rights?

I feel a little bit anxious, especially caused by some social security problems. The content and timeline of my creation haven’t been affected a lot, because most of the works I’m working on have been decided earlier. However, my income is more or less affected by the pandemic as many previously scheduled exhibitions have been postponed, and some teaching jobs have been canceled. I think it may be a good thing from another perspective. It gives me a break from my hectic schedule and time to catch my breath and think. When the whole industry begins to explore new ways under the current crisis, artists also begin to re-examine the meaning of art and creation.

I don’t think most residential foreigners can properly stand in the real context of American social problems, as they can’t fully understand its historical background and experience their national mood. Therefore, instead of blindly following and being politically correct, we should be more rational and cautious in expressing our attitudes. We can’t treat every social event as a cathartic window. I support the pursuit and expression of right for all just and pure purposes, within the bounds of the law.

His works have been displayed on numerous exhibitions at renowned venues. Jiannan Wu was interviewed by China Central Television international channel (CCTV) and American SinoVision.

Photo courtesy of Jiannan Wu

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