Withdrew myself from the hustle and bustle of Anfu Road, I turned into the street entrance of a residential area, the gray metal gate of Capsule Shanghai appeared in the deep alley. The scorching summer sun in high noon squeezed sweat from my body. The mask was like a steamer on my face with layers of skin care products, sunscreen, and cosmetics covered up in succession before I left home. I wasn't sure what benefits or damages such "makeups" would have on my skin but these chemicals piling up on the surface of my skin produced a strange feeling, and miraculously brought some mental comfort.
Such a direct physical response has perhaps marked a specific footnote to the exhibition I was about to visit before entering the gallery space. Douglas Rieger's "Concealer" at Capsule Shanghai is the artist's first solo since his previous solo exhibition "Funny Business" at Helena Anrather in New York nearly three years ago in 2019. As the exhibition preface suggests, Douglas Rieger remains as concerned with the theme of the body in this exhibition while expanding the boundaries and manipulation of materials. As I looked closer to examine these works, a set of contradictory relationships gradually emerge in the counterpoint between the space and works: concealment and exposure, breaking and undertaking, suspension and landing, nature and artifacts, manual labor, and artistic commodities.
These contradictory relationships were presented in the form of a suspension in the space. Whenever casting an eye on the work materials, we were reminded of our direct experience of touching an "object" and the industrial "decay" that is left behind in our memories. In a white box space where a myriad of synthetic materials are assembled, a sense of alienation arises: the white walls, white baseboards, and white floor serve as the "concealer" for the works. We could imagine the factory environment where these industrial synthetic materials were produced, perhaps even including the dust, wood scraps, and other bits and pieces during the creation process. With such a detached feeling, the exhibition extended inches of space for us to reflect on the "objects" the artist has chosen.
Before "sculpture" is defined as a noun for existing matter or a work of art, it was firstly a verb describing labor practice. The material of artworks changes its physical nature before obtaining the possible philosophical concept or an aesthetic reflection. At the core of a sculptor's practice, the relationship between the sculpture's material properties and the space is something that has to be constantly examined. The new works created in 2022 by Douglas that are included in this solo exhibition fall into two categories: freestanding sculptures and soft wall reliefs, the latter of which could be subdivided into three series: "Embedding", "Packaging," and "Steel and Wood Compositions". While pursuing the scale and volume of his previous style, the artist also explores the forms of intervention with the space, by fixing the sculptures as wall reliefs in the middle of a white wall to confront gravity, a physical property of "objects".
For example, in the "Embedding" series, the soft reliefs including Butterfly, Cat Eyes, Bone Cage, Seedbed, Fangs, and Hardware are defined by rectangular wooden frames that enclose the contents. Within the frames, other materials, such as steel, upholstery foam, vinyl synthetic leather, and silicone are planted or filled in with paint applied to partial areas. Douglas uses mostly artificial and chemical materials. With the artist's labor effort, these materials are assembled into independent artworks. The wooden frames are in a neutral tone of flesh pink and are made of compressed processed wood. The dimension is universally 81.3 (H) x 61cm (W), with slight variations in thickness depending on the weight, size, and thickness of the materials embedded. These works are installed in the center of the wall like "relief sculptures", constantly balancing between solidity and softness, establishment and collapse, framing and dissolution. Some of the components, such as the ornamental bead chains, are half suspended in the air due to the tilt angle of suspension and are unable to move forward or backward. This stillness arouses the viewer's imagination as if the work was boosted with some potential energy (Hardware). There are other components bound to the wall like being bewitched. The fangs that pierce the void seem to thump into the cotton and its power is dissipated (Untitled (Mean Bean)). Therefore, the interaction between the constituent parts of the work and the space constantly pulls the boundary between the sculpture and the space, making the works loiter between sculpture and installation.
The "soft wall reliefs" incorporate more unconventional materials in their creation. The adjective "soft" takes over the linguistic preconception, mobilizing the listener's associations and partially offsetting the hardness and strength of the traditional impression of sculptures. In Douglas's works, the softness and hardness of the materials are not determined by their physical properties, but by the viewer's comprehension of the materials' roles in the composition, to consider whether there is an absolute boundary between the two textures. Whether it is I with Socks or Ear Bone in the "Packaging" series, or Bound or Partners in the "Embedding" series, the soft materials visible in the works, such as synthetic leather, upholstery foam, and clothing, are highly malleable, but presented in rather fixed forms. Most of them don't vary in shape and color but exist as the background. The "soft" materials here aren't used to form supporting structures, but as fillers and joints, like the flesh and blood, ligaments, fascia, and connective tissue in the human body. In the series of works, they are soft in texture and appear as fixed forms, always playing a similar role, yet evoke completely different associations from time to time.
For example, when paralleling Bound with Partners from the "Embedding" series, one will find the artist's playful interpretation of materials: both works, displayed in adjacent spaces, use wood, steel, paint, upholstery foam, and vinyl as materials, but the key difference is that Bound uses silicone as the intertwining medium in the structure, while Partners uses rubber bands. Apart from color, the characteristics of the two materials exist and wander in their subtle differences, just as the interpersonal relationships referred to by the work title -- whether they are companions, partners, or just shackled by their connection -- if left unconsidered and uninterpreted, they might only be regarded as some indifferent formality.
The harder metallic materials in the works, such as steel and aluminum, play a role akin to the bodily organs. The external stimuli and the daily fluctuation gradually erode the organs and change their conditions, increasingly being oxidized and rusted in a way that is imperceptible to the naked eye. In the two series of "Embedding" and "Packaging", the hardness or the impact of the two materials is visually weakened, and the boundary between the materials seems to become fluid with the changing environment.
Therefore, we don't need to define the precise properties of Douglas's sculptures, try to extract the meaning, revelation, or phenomenon, or endow them with interpretive values that they don't possess. The works are the results of wood carving by a carpenter and the transformation of a man-made object. The artist's hands maneuver on the material of his choice, dancing with time, chiseling, and polishing day after day. When shaping the materials with his tools, the artist's emotions and the unique characteristics of the materials grind and compromise with each other, giving the work a specific aura: serious, playful, pretentiously profound, or sprightly humorous.
The theme of body explored in Douglas's works is apolitical and isn't attached to distinct cultural symbols. Rather, he looks back at the evolution of the human body in the historical context of artifacts, by concealing or appropriating materials. The three freestanding sculptures at the exhibition hall, Old Hunk, Young Chunk, and Double Fist, are fewer in number than the wall "reliefs", but in the spacious rooms, we are able to navigate and observe their details from all directions. All three pieces are displayed on plinths about one meter tall. The plinths are either wood carvings with varnish sealers or painted steel in various shapes, with a rough interior untreated. In this way, we are looking at the artwork on the plinth almost at eye level or even from an overlooking perspective.
For the work Double Fist, the title suggests more specifically than the work itself. Looking at the work alone, we see that the top and bottom parts are linked by a pink silicone with a diameter slightly smaller than a car's exhaust pipe. As I moved around, I found that no matter which angle I looked out, the pink silicone was always visible without obstructions, making the two parts a tight and solid unity. In Double Fist, the two sculptural blocks are stacked and closely connected, symbolizing the artist's hands in labor: they are anxiously fighting with each other or suggesting that two united fists will double the strength and efficiency. We may also paraphrase Marshall McLuhan's classic statement about the medium that "sculpture is an extension of man." As a result of the body synergy, the sculpture is like an organ in the artist's body, yet it is outside of his body. The moment the artist removes his hands, the sculpture's microenvironment changes and becomes part of the cycle of the natural environment, no longer subject to the artist's hands.
Through the abstract shaping of materials, Douglas emulates the figurative form in a specific state, which is perhaps reminiscent of the plump figures in the Venus of Villendorf, which sings the praise of fertility. And when we trace further in the history of Western sculpture, from Phidias, Michelangelo to Rodin, there are countless accurate imitations of the human body that have traditionally attempted to portray the three-dimensional form based on human anatomy, to portray and convey the spirit within it. Only with the most accurate and scientific reproduction can the human spirit be renewed through the material after the death of the body. Douglas presents a perpetual power throughout his works, preserving the traces of time on the surface with his gestures. The changing angles as we move are "transient" states rather than "time-lapse" tendencies. We don't need to demand the sculptures to prove the existence of deceased men and are fully aware that the works in front of us are living bodies - vigorous and organic.