Primitivism is a product of modernity. Modern master Pablo Picasso’s work between 1906 and 1909 drew on African tribal masks, Paul Gauguin obsessively depicted the natives of Tahiti, and Max Ernst’s sculpture resembled Indonesian craft. In 1984, the exhibition “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern” at the Museum of Modern Art examined the crucial influence of the tribal arts of Africa, the Asia Pacific, and North America on western modernism. Almost a century after the emergence of primitivism, tribal art imagery has largely disappeared. Practices of neo-primitivism, after all, differ markedly from their predecessors—the results of collectively appropriating otherness at a geopolitical halfway point.
The relationship between neo-primitivism and what would have once been called primitive imagery is variable: today, artists propose a state of tabula rasa by rinsing away the linguistic turn and constructing an ahistorical temporality. A vague reference to premodern art often remains, as in Mariana Castillo Deball’s plaster moldings of Mayan stone carvings. Guan Xiao’s Geocentric Puncture, similarly, contains kaleidoscopic color photographs of snakeskin patterns refracted through digital collage. Leather becomes a symbol of modern luxury, and patterns of artificial animal skin a suit of armor for the mobile classes—nature digested by popular culture. In Brent Wadden’s paintings, textiles are configured in overlapping triangles; the geometry of modern rationality is eroded by a rough, hand-woven texture similar to traditional native American fabrics.
With steel rebar and green hoardings, Shao Yi builds contemporary totem poles
with the help of geometric computing in his Fetish: Object in Nonsense and Fetish: Contradictions inside the rotation. The totem is a symbol of genealogical and spiritual connection, and Shao’s sculpture implies a relationship with the Hegelian spirit of industrial capitalism. Chen Tianzhuo’s practice similarly revolves around a new religion he fabricates; the totem structure of his work materializes its symbols. Aaron Curry’s sculpture shows how Picasso’s appropriation of primitivism breaks through the powerful planarity of modernism. With artificial straw processed in a knotting technique derived from traditional culture, Haegue Yang creates sculptures representing the forms of ancient architecture in the series “The Intermediates,” looking at the universality of premodern imagery. Yang Xinguang, a gatherer in the metropolis, collects wood and stone at the junction of rural and urban, transforming them into sculpture marked with labor-intensive, primitive tools. For Hooks, Yang polishes branches according to the grain until their warm, smooth texture resembles human bone.
Here physical properties of a natural material see it transformed into a non-functional object. The origins of neo-primitivism are complex, but, in our post-identity moment, it provides less of a social group or collective background and more of a personal religion.
Text by Venus Lau Translated by Sheng Xia