An American Artist in Chengdu II: From Cave To Sky

When we last talked to Will Kerr, he was teaching at Sichuan University as the campus’s first American artist-in-residence. Arriving in Chengdu in August 2010, the Boston-born designer, curator, and gallery owner had been juggling a varied career in the US, while hatching even more ambitious plans overseas. The product of those plans is now here, in the form of his latest collection, “From Cave to Sky.” Full details on where to find the exhibition are at the bottom of this post.

Enter the gallery space at Liaoliao Art Dissemination Institution, and you enter the cave. Flanked by rustic paintings of cave-dwellings, impressions of primeval man-made marks in ink and acrylic dance on the walls. Visiting this show of more than 100 works is like a physical and metaphorical visitation of the past. The show comprises paintings in acrylic and ink, but also includes works on both canvas and rice paper, photographic prints, and video. It’s not just in the positioning of forms that the exhibition marks a view on early history– the artist undertook to excavate ideas that represented our cave-dwelling ancestors’ discovery of art and the ancient philosophical “allegory of the cave.”

Will Kerr at his opening, June 17.

Eighty-thousand years ago, archaeologists discovered a primitive tool-making workshop in South Africa’s Blombos Cave, which is believed to be the earliest-known site for the production of art supplies in the world. This workshop was a breakthrough, a tremendous step for human evolution and art history.

Borrowing the primitive aesthetic of cave-dwelling man, Kerr- who originally studied philosophy– ventured into new territory with his materials and process, invoking the spiritual “cave” as referenced by philosophers from Plato to Nietzsche. Considering his residence in Huayang, Chengdu, to be a metaphorical cave dwelling, his work has ascended for two years through the unique challenges of a cross-cultural environment.

The series got its title as the artist moved, physically and conceptually, from this primordial cave dwelling to a higher place of connectedness, grounding his new origin in China. Kerr began by exploring objects, gestures and archetypes that marked his exploration of the origins of art-making. As he continually redefined his relationship to his strange new surroundings, further meaning manifested itself in all that he saw.

“Traveler,” 2011, acrylic and ink on canvas.

“My paintings do not arise from a preconceived notion of what art should look like,” says Kerr. His work does not require a “finished” or “polished” seal of approval to be considered whole. Explaining how he unearths his imagery through a process of exploration and discovery, Kerr points to the fact that we as humans only rarely see things as they really are.

Walking through the show you can observe Kerr’s layering of symbolism, and the mythological and astrological signs in his paintings. At times, gestures and figures seem to disappear and re-appear at a glance. The artist wants his whole process to be embedded and reflected in the content and philosophy of the work; because there is a fluid, narrative quality, images in “Cave to sky” often transform themselves before the viewer, literally morphing with the eye.

Two of the show’s most striking works, a pair that when placed together are titled “Cave,” may be arranged differently. Laid out horizontally, the bedrock of a cave dwelling can be seen; placed vertically and side-by-side, they make a man’s torso. A clever introduction to the imaginative shape-shifting in Kerr’s layered forms.

“Cave-Refuge,” 2012, acrylic and ink on canvas

The Prince Who Lost His Horse” reveals that same transformability and shape-shifting. The artist was propelled by his own struggle with unwanted adversity, trial and error, which then took on deep psychological significance as it was explored on canvas. The combined “Prince” and “Horse” are layered between shadowy, spectral forms of the archetypes, and are even revealed in a pair of monograph figures that seem to be a sort of metaphysical shorthand.

“The Prince Who Lost His Horse,” 2012, acrylic and ink on canvas

“Self-Portrait as Xeno” is another work of self-exploration, in part rejoicing and also reflecting on the culture gap and language barrier. Kerr felt he was a newly-identified Xenophile in China. It is also a meditation on the artist’s difficulty interacting with his unfamiliar environment, in which language itself became an important variable in the painting’s metaphor, used and inscribed throughout the work.

“Self-Portrait as Xeno,” 2011, acrylic and found objects on canvas.

In the upstairs of the gallery space is a whole selection of works contained within the exhibition, entitled “Scrolls.” This is a body of gestures made on long, sprawling scroll-like canvases, woven into different arrangements. The gestures seem as deliberate as handwriting. But they are their own forms, implying a set of archetypes that suggest a phenomenology all on their own. Buried deep within a shared realm of common experience, any viewer may participate in the creation of this vocabulary, to determine and generate meaning.

Kerr writes, “My works investigate individual expressions of connectedness and isolation.” By working long hours in isolation and sparse conditions, he has endured a sort of hermitage in Sichuan. But he takes us through his process of discovery within that hermitage, to a more connected place in the world- just as the East is developing stronger ties with the Wes.
Surprising works in the series include the 2011 painting “Self-Portrait Becoming Sky,” done on 200″ x 100″ canvas, for which the artist transposed his own image onto a view from his studio balcony. Communing with the sky, he created striking impressions of his vista. He then dressed his marks with whimsical gestures in ink on rice paper, pressed to the canvas–layering over the landscape a portrait of a farmer wading through the wetlands.
“Self-Portrait Becoming Sky,” acrylic and ink on canvas.

Will Kerr is most grateful for He Gong’s invitation to paint in Chengdu, as well as for the opportunity to teach at Sichuan University. “From cave to sky” marks the artist’s arrival at his destination after a long journey. Having moved from the experience of the primordial cave-dwelling to the gallery space, his paintings have finally achieved that feeling of connectedness which he so sought after. Kerr has at last emerged from his isolation – free to reflect on his work quietly, contemplatively, and with the space and distance to revel in it.

Let’s welcome Will Kerr in his June/July 2012 show, hoping his work will be widely enjoyed by Chinese and foreign art-lovers alike.

“Dragon Fish,” acrylic and ink on canvas.

 “Cave to Sky” Exhibition Details

What: Will Kerr’s art show, “From cave to sky”

Where: Liao Liao Art Dissemination Institution, Century City, Chengdu

When: Now through July 6th

What to bring: Your love of art/ passion for culture, Eastern & Western



6 thoughts on “An American Artist in Chengdu II: From Cave To Sky”

  1. I checked out this exhibit on it’s opening day and it was great. It’s walking distance from the southern most subway station (Century City 世纪城). A lot of the paintings struck me as very psychedelic and included hidden objects and faces within textures. There’s a lot of depth.

  2. Yay! Depth. It’s not a word I introduce often anymore, it draws too much attention to the artist’s thought process and not the work. But… sometimes you can see the artist’t thought process IN the work, that’s a particular brand of style. Kerr’s got it in spades.

  3. This show is finishing up on the 6th? Why did I have the impression it was running for longer?

    The examples I’ve seen of Will’s work always impart a sense of Lucid Dreaming to me, like an observer being given glimpse of another time and place, shapes and contexts shifting constantly before my eyes. It’s a very unique style.

    • It’s run for a long time, I think 3 weeks. This Friday is the last day, so for anyone who hasn’t checked it out yet, now’s the time.

      Also make sure you don’t miss the second floor, there are more exhibits there than on the ground level. It was easy to miss the second floor when I went.

  4. I appreciate the feedback. I am trying to initiate forms of communication and consciousness through my work – and find that people (generally) hesitate/don’t know how to engage with their own experience and environment. It always seems that other artists are the onces who are drawn in and receptive to my paintings; I’m thankful for that!


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