CHICAGO — Cathy Hsiao’s sculptures embody a quiet, tranquil beauty forged from an unlikely marriage of materials: concrete, rough-edged and aggressive, dressed in delicate layers of natural dyes. An artist with a background in weaving, Hsiao embraces a fresh form of abstraction with her inspired replacement of textiles with construction material. Dichotomies — organic compounds and manmade composites; fluid dye and hardened paste — here emerge in pleasing harmony.
Over a dozen of Hsiao’s colorful concrete works are on view in her first solo exhibition, Movement 1: Bloom at Goldfinch. Its title describes the Chicago-based artist’s vision of the installation as a conceptual score, where individual sculptures converge to create a visual rhythm. All are iterations of her technique of renewing concrete through plant-based dyes, such as indigo, turmeric, and Brazilwood.
In another artist’s hands, such a gathering of objects and materials might produce a monotonous drone. Hsiao, though, offers endless variations on concrete as canvas; her arrangement of brightly stained, diverse shapes is more akin to a sonatina of sculpture.
Thin and fragmented, her sculptures are faintly reminiscent of Gordon Matta-Clark’s extractions of Bronx floors when seen up close. Like the New Yorker’s architectural incisions, Hsiao’s cement slices record and reveal different textural layers, like archaeological strata, to evoke a sense of time captured. But rather than cut from concrete ground, Hsiao’s fragments are newly cast from single-part molds she produced through CNC milling, with their forms based on photographs she takes of her daily environments. Once dyed, the slabs have a remarkable, airy presence that distances them from this laborious process and their photographic source material. Some shapes resemble polychrome clouds; others, sheets of marbled sugar glass, freshly cracked.
While Hsiao has entirely transformed the contents of her photographs, there are echoes of specific places to be found in the exhibition: a cast traffic cone holds debris from her neighborhood of Pilsen; pistils of a protea plant are embedded in a cement bowl; hardware like carabiners and screws poke out from some sculptures. Hsiao tells me her work draws from two kinds of places in particular: construction sites, where she sometimes scoops rubble for her work, and the kitchen, where she creates natural dyes. Traditionally gendered, these separate sites are reconciled in her practice as places of change and transformation, between which materials and ideas can circulate freely.
Hsiao’s sculptures are at once impressions of her surroundings and reimaginings of experience. Using forms of debris, elevated into concrete poetry, she wends her way to lightness.
Cathy Hsiao: Movement 1, Bloom continues at Goldfinch (317 North Albany Avenue, Chicago, Illinois) through March 24.