Editors' pick

Foon Sham

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Foon Sham photo
Foon Sham/Project 4
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Editorial Review

Positively stellar, negatives and all
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, May 25, 2012

The subject of a stellar solo exhibition at Project 4 Gallery, Foon Sham has long been as interested in negative space as in positive. For the Washington-based, Chinese-born sculptor, whose well-known body of work consists largely of vessellike forms and basketlike abstractions in wood, the space inside, around and in between forms is as important as the forms themselves.

Take “Curve.” An undulating tower of more than 1,000 cedar blocks that’s part of an ongoing public art show in Foggy Bottom, the work is meant not just to be looked at but also to be crawled inside, where the sound, smell, temperature and light are noticeably different from the environment outside.

Sham’s Project 4 show, which celebrates the byproduct of his sculptural practice -- the mountains of sawdust that result from cutting up trees -- is a logical next step.

Logical, yes, but also fairly stunning. The centerpiece of the show, which takes up much of the gallery’s lower level, is a site-specific installation involving several conical structures covered with sawdust and salt.

The exhibition also includes a handful of small, more conventional artworks: pretty, seedpodlike forms cast from a slurry of sawdust and glue and mounted on frames on the wall and, on the floor, a squat, vaselike vessel made from wooden blocks. There also are two medium-size sculptures, installed outside the gallery, that are shaped like giant wooden bowls. One is lined with living grass; the other, a residue of salt.

The grass piece, called “Vessel of Green,” evokes the terraced, mountainside rice fields of Sham’s homeland. The subtext of the grass piece -- survival in a hardscrabble world -- lends conceptual heft to the visually arresting piece.

But it’s the installation inside -- part landscape, part architecture -- that’s most striking: At the door to Project 4’s two-story space is “Aim High, Build From the Bottom,” a work that involves not just sculpture but also a kind of interactive performance.

“Aim High” is constructed like an oversize, tiered serving stand, stacked with concentric trays mounted around a vertical pole. Instead of canapes, however, its platters are covered by a thick layer of sawdust. Visitors are invited to go upstairs, where Sham has placed bowls of sawdust of various colors. From the balcony that overlooks the piece, viewers can grab a handful and toss it over the railing, adding to the piece.

It’s fun, to be sure. And the cascade of sawdust is, in its own way, almost as beautiful as falling snow. But there’s conceptual depth here, too.

As Sham explains it, “Aim High” also is a metaphor for life. Even if we shoot for the top, he says, we have little control over where our handful of sawdust is going to land.

Over time, however, and as more and more handfuls are thrown, a mountain slowly rises out of the dust.

The story behind the work
By Michael O’Sullivan
Friday, May 25, 2012

In the 25 years that Foon Sham has been making art, he also has kicked up a lot of dust. Before construction began on Bethesda’s Strathmore Music Center, the artist was invited to help clear the property’s trees. For a while, he set up shop there with a portable sawmill.

Sham has long been fascinated by the variety of textures, densities, smells and colors of his chosen medium’s waste material -- sawdust from mulberry wood is lemon-yellow, for instance -- but it has been within only the past 10 years that he started saving and cataloguing it systematically, separating it into bins and buckets by hue and other characteristics. More recently, he has begun thinking of ways to make art with it.

On one level, the piles of sawdust at Project 4 are a tangible measure of how hard Sham works. (Very.) But they’re also a self-portrait of the artist, in a way. When Sham describes the exhibition as his way of “sharing my inside out,” he means it both literally -- what is sawdust but wood’s innards? -- and figuratively. After a quarter of a century of inhaling the stuff, the artist believes that, even with a face mask, some of the sawdust has gotten inside him.