Glueing the Past Together: An Interview with artist Warren King
I talk with NYC artist Warren King about coming into the art world, the intersection of individual and ancestral history in his sculptures, and how his work reflects the complications of knowing another person.
By Julianna Bjorksten
New York based artist Warren King has completely abandoned traditional media in favor of the quotidian: his stunning, life-size sculptures are constructed only of cardboard and glue. The use of these everyday, disposable materials is not only an exploration of a medium that the rigid art world has overlooked; these typically discarded materials also reflect the elusive and fragmented relationships that he presents in his work. Shaoxing Villagers, his most recent series, is inspired by a trip he took to his grandparents’ hometown in China. It is composed of life-sized figures inspired by the citizens of this town. This series grapples with the gap between personal and collective history as it reconstructs and represents the fractured relationship –– cutting across time and borders –– between King and his ancestors. His immense sculptures do not overplay this relationship, instead, they are his attempt to understand the individuals he depicts. As King’s work demonstrates the limitations of his efforts to know someone from a different time and place, it also seems to pose the question of whether fragile cultural connections, once broken, can be mended.
Julianna Bjorksten: Could you start by telling me about your artistic background?
Warren King: Besides a few drawing classes that I took in college for fun, I don’t have any formal art education. I studied engineering up through graduate school and designed buildings for several years. At some point, I switched to software and worked in data mining and analysis for over 15 years. Around five years ago, when I was taking a break from software startups, I started making my first sculptures, and it just went from there.
JB: Do you do research before you work? I’m wondering about your ongoing Shaoxing Villagers series in particular. How closely do these sculptures resemble the villagers of your grandparents’ town? Do you take many creative liberties when constructing them or are they somewhat accurate?
WK: For my series Shaoxing Villagers, I’m recreating the inhabitants of a small town in China where my grandparents came from. That’s just the concept, though, and I don’t hold myself to doing actual portraits. What I’m trying to capture is the diversity of individual personalities, and some of the dynamics and interaction within groups. So I do a good amount of research before starting each piece, but it’s focused on identifying a gesture or expression that adds something interesting or new to the group.
JB: Your work seems to explore the question of whether or not one can truly know another person. I’m thinking specifically of your creative decision to leave the backs of your figures unfinished, exposed.
WK: The Shaoxing Villagers are based on people from my grandparents’ home village in China, people who were friends and relatives of my ancestors, who, up to the point when my grandparents left China, had shared generations of commonality. The process of making the figures draws me closer to those people, but it also makes me aware of the fact that I’ll never truly know them; I can imagine their expressions and dress, but the connection to them has been broken. So the cardboard figures aren’t meant to be portraits. The figures, as well as the process of creating them, represent my efforts to reach out to my past, and the recognition of the limitations of such efforts. By leaving the backs of the figures exposed, I bring attention to the fact that the figures, as well as my connections to the people they represent, are constructed piece by piece, superficial, and incomplete.
JB: While your work is historical, it is also personal. How does this tension between intimacy and distance play a role in your work?
WK: The intimacy you get from making art, especially figurative art, is pretty intense. I previously had a long career in data analysis software. I can’t think of anything more impersonal and detached. It’s head-spinning to think about how different it is to now be creating figures by hand, figuring out how to evoke emotions with gestures and expressions. With every medium, but maybe especially so with cardboard, there’s a range of detail that can be used. More detail is not necessarily better, and accuracy is not what I go for. I’ve done portraits in the past, but I don’t find it as interesting. One might assume that my project of recreating the residents of a village is a documentary exercise, but it [isn’t] really. To some degree I actually try to strip away much of the individual identity. It’s more about relating to those people by evoking some emotion that we have in common. It’s a delicate balance, but by maintaining some degree of anonymity and abstracting the forms, viewers will often project their own memories and personal impressions onto the sculpture. They see themselves or people they know in the figures, and feel a bond with them in a way that I don’t think they would if they saw a photograph of the same individual. I reach this balance to varying degrees of success each time, and so it’s always fascinating to see what kind of connection viewers will make with the figures, or not.
JB: What is your creative process and how has it changed over time?
WK: I’ve only been doing this for about five years, so the learning curve has been steep. At first, the challenge was just to figure out how to make complex shapes within the limitations of the material. I only fold or bend the material in ways that retain the characteristics of the corrugated board, so in order to [create] curved, organic shapes, I’m forced to use a certain amount of abstraction. Instead of recreating shapes exactly, I have to imply the shape instead using shadows or lines. So a lot of the process involves experimenting with different angles, trying different scales etc…There’s a lot of trial and error. But one of the benefits of using cardboard is it’s very quick [to] use, so it’s relatively easy to try things. If it doesn’t work out, I can just cut away whole sections and try something new. I’m still learning with each new piece, but now that I have some proficiency with making basic shapes, I’ve started to experiment with other techniques, like coloring with inks. In my latest pieces, I’ve been working on a new technique of pasting images and patterns cut out of paper to the surface of the figures. There’s a long tradition of Chinese cut-paper art that I’m drawing from, and it gives me another vehicle to further the storytelling.
JB: I (happily) discovered your work through Instagram. What role does social media play in your work? When constructing your pieces, are you considering how they will look digitally?
WK: I think social media can be a great way for an artist to reach people. By sharing their lives and influences surrounding their art, artists can provide some rich context to the art that they make. And as a follower of other artists, I know that I’m very interested in an artist’s studio environment and their process. Unfortunately, I’m just not much of a sharer. I look forward to posting images of a piece when it’s done, though. With a few exhibitions a year (if I’m lucky), having some feedback to know that people are paying attention is nice.
JB: Speaking of exhibitions, how are your works typically shown?
WK: This is another area of the art world that I don’t have much experience with, and am still in the process of figuring out. I’m trying everything –– public installations, events, gallery exhibitions, museum group shows… At this point, I get the most personal satisfaction out of exhibiting to people who are not only interested in the aesthetics or craftsmanship of my work, but also in the deeply personal narratives behind the pieces. Having spent 20 prior years in the engineering and software fields, it’s the cultural and personal sides of art-making that I now find the most interesting.
JB: Do you keep the viewer in mind when creating your pieces, or do they not play a role in your works’ creations?
WK: For me, it’s very hard to come up with an initial concept for a piece. And because there’s a lot of effort that goes into making a figure, if the execution of piece goes off the rails it feels like not just a waste of effort and time, but also a waste of a precious idea. And then for many pieces, there comes a point in the process where things just aren’t working out. On the first wall-mounted piece that I made, I had such high hopes, but then hit a wall halfway through. After reworking a section a dozen times, I was ready to stomp on the whole thing. But I decided to put aside my original vision for what it should turn out like, and just pushed through to the end. The results were surprising, as were people’s reactions to it. I wish it were otherwise, but I’m not a natural improviser, and relying on intuition is something I had to learn. So now I try to put stuff out without making assumptions about how people will respond. As much as I’d like every piece that goes out to be masterpiece, I try to remind myself that it’s not necessarily about making individual objects, but more like continuing an ongoing dialogue.
JB: Why did you decide to use cardboard as your medium? It feels very democratic, unlike a lot of modern art, especially digital art. It’s very refreshing to see everyday materials used instead (and so beautifully!).
WK: Some media, like oil paints, open up endless possibilities. On the other hand, materials like cardboard have properties that you have to work around, that actually reduce the possibilities. Personally, I get a kind of paralysis when there are too many options. I don’t know where to start –– it’s like my expectations are too high. But being forced to figure out how to do something within a set of rigid constraints is what triggers my creativity. Maybe it has something to do with my engineering background. My lack of formal art education may be one reason I gravitated towards a non-traditional medium, but it’s not the main one.
JB: What role does or should the artist play in society? Should art better society? Can it?
WK: I have to say that there are days — and much more often since the last election –– that I wonder what I’m doing cutting cardboard all day. Given the issues we’re facing, it seems almost necessary to be engaged in things that have [an] immediate and tangible impact. My work, which is based on my specific experience and is deeply personal, is more of a “call for reflection” rather than a “call to action,” but that’s important too. Not all work is about the big ideas, I realize, but I do believe that all good art should work to further the contemporary dialogue, and I’m still figuring out how to use my own practice to do that.
JB: What projects are you currently working on and excited about?
WK: In my latest series of works, I’m trying to draw connections to my cultural roots. I’m using recognizable Chinese motifs like imperial portraits and operatic archetypes to interpret very specific and personal memories from my upbringing in the West. The sculptures are finished, and now I’ve started writing essays to go with each one, delving into the personal histories that inspired each piece. The photos and essays will probably all go into some sort of book. It’s kind of a daunting project for me in many ways, but I feel a rare kind of urgency to finish it.