Stories abound of artists hunkering down in their studios during the pandemic, creating uninterrupted, as they did when art wasn’t a business — before they knew about galleries, commissions, or patrons. New York- and Shanghai-based fashion designer Han Feng lives a particularly busy life, and quarantine gave her the time to do something she’s never done before: make a series of photographs.
“I know it’s very weird, as a lot of people I know had a hard time,” she says. “But I called this series of photographs The Gift because I saw it as a gift to spend time with myself.” Her collection of 20 limited edition pigment prints, plus two larger pieces, will be on exhibit at Schoolhouse Gallery from Friday, Aug. 13 through Sept. 1.
Born in Nanjing, China, Feng arrived in the United States in 1985 and quickly made a name for herself in fashion. By 1993, she had her own women’s clothing line. She started making men’s clothes at the behest of a patron. She made her debut as a costume designer with Madama Butterfly at the English National Opera and Metropolitan Opera. She then designed costumes for a remake of The Karate Kid with actor Jaden Smith. Her clothing, design, and art have been exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum; Neue Galerie; and Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.
Each time, she seized an opportunity despite having little experience. Feng says she saw the pandemic as another opportunity. “I travel a lot. I have a lot of deadlines. I was relieved to slow my life down,” she says. “For the first time, I didn’t have to rush — I could be calm and relaxed.”
Feng’s photography career started about four years ago. Gallerist Steven Harris of M97 in Shanghai, having seen Feng’s Instagram, encouraged her to try her hand at photography. At first, Feng balked, saying she didn’t like machines. But she soon discovered she had a talent for it.
When the pandemic hit, Feng started building assemblages — using ceramics and objects from her own collection, topped by vegetables — on a 100-year-old table in her midtown Manhattan loft. “The earth gives us these beautiful, even ordinary things,” she says. “I love to share them with friends.”
Feng’s artwork lies at the intersection of photography, still life, and sculpture. She joins the ranks of artists who use the camera as a tool — like a paintbrush or recording device. Her images are reminiscent of those of Robert Mapplethorpe — both sculptural and intimate. They were made during a time in which we were more acutely aware of life. Through the subject matter and material, we can discern what Feng cherishes. By combining and stacking objects, Feng gives them new, more complex meaning. By documenting them, she preserves them, imparting them with lasting value.
The beauty of Feng’s images — and they do conjure beauty — lies in the contrast and interplay between the inorganic below and organic above. These are sculptures made for the camera — meant to be seen head-on, not from 360 degrees. The collection shows Feng’s acumen and confidence as an artist. She seems to have purposefully simplified her setup — side-stepping a host of technical difficulties, such as multiple flash lighting, to focus on the sculpture. Remember: she doesn’t like machinery.
Feng mounted a Hasselblad digital camera on a tripod placed at approximately the same spot and height for every shot. She used a single light positioned at about 45 degrees. The sculpture was centered in the viewfinder, grounded on the table against a dark background. Each image is titled The Gift and numbered one through 20 — personal and clinical at the same time.
One wonders if Feng simply transferred her fashion skills to sculpture to make these images. Instead of draping and comparing the colors and textures of fabrics, she seems to have applied the same sensibility to form, volume, and space. There is grace in Feng’s photographs, as she captures the gesture of tendrils and leafy folds. There is beauty in the sublime colors. There is humor, too, as a teapot strains under the weight of a huge hat of vegetables. And there is life. There is always life in her photographs.
The event: The Gift by Han Feng, alongside works by Elise Ansel, Anne Beresford, and Kahn & Selesnick
The time: Opening reception Friday, Aug. 13, 6 to 9 p.m.; through Sept. 1
The place: Schoolhouse Gallery, 494 Commercial St., Provincetown
The cost: Free