Born in Saigon in 1979, Diem Chau arrived in the U.S. at age seven and has lived in Seattle for the past 27 years. Since graduating from Cornish College of the Arts in 2002, she has exhibited her trademark works—small sculptures made from everyday items such as toothpicks and chinaware—in numerous group and solo shows in New York, Tokyo, Los Angeles, Chicago and elsewhere. For her recent show at G. Gibson in Seattle, the artist exhibited a selection of sculptures carved from Crayola crayons and carpenter’s pencils.
Endangered plant and animal species found in the Pacific Northwest are the subjects of the show’s central series, “A-Z Northwest Natives” (all works on view 2013). Twenty-six pairs of different-colored crayons—one pair for each letter of the alphabet—were mounted on individual wooden plinths and displayed in two glass-top cases. Both crayons in a pair are carved like totems: the left-hand one is topped with the letter carved out of the wax, and the right-hand one with a member of an endangered species whose name begins with that letter. The diminutive works depict animals including the bald eagle, killer whale, lynx and mountain goat, as well as wildflowers and marine organisms. There is also, in one instance, a human: for the letter Q, Chau sculpted a figure representing the Quinault Indian tribe—an economically embattled population on the Olympic Peninsula near Seattle.
Examined closely, the sculptures reveal themselves to be remarkably varied in artistic technique. Crisp cartooning is seen in Y is for Yuma myotis, where the bat’s wings are rendered in a folded—in position, and in E is for Elk, where the animal’s horns are squeezed inward. Such details, arising from the spatial limits of the slim crayons, give the figures a stylized appearance. The carved bird in N is for Northern Spotted Owl is subtly patterned with painted speckles.
Certain works point to connections between the American Northwest and Asia. The title plants of R is for Rhododendron, J is for Juniper and D is for Dogwood all have strong ties to both locales, as does the mollusk portrayed in U is for Urchin. Such works not only underscore Chau’s own dual heritage, but also convey that we are all part of one big ecosystem.
In addition to “A-Z Northwest Natives,” Chau displayed eight carved carpenter’s pencils. Two of these sculptures (The Raven and the Sun and The Last Bear) are tied to Native American myths, while the others allude to Africa. The figures in The Last Gorilla and The Last Elephant are particularly tiny (each is no more than a quarter inch high), and undoubtedly stretched the artist’s ability to carve the porous graphite without breaking it. In The Last Serpent, Chau managed to create a sculpture using both the graphite of the pencil and the wood that surrounds it, carving the writing instrument to various depths to create a form suggesting a serpent (the graphite) crawling among rocks (the wood). Entrancing and hypnotic, the sculpture typifies the seriousness seen throughout the show. In this new body of work, Chau enlists ecological and anthropological motifs to considerable effect, creating delicate sculptures that warn us of the risks of ignoring nature’s fragile balance.